Facing 'Retirement Crisis,' Sanders Leads Charge for Social Security Expansion

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic nomination, includes expanding Social Security in his 12-point Agenda for America. (Photo: Brookings Institution/flickr/cc)

Facing 'Retirement Crisis,' Sanders Leads Charge for Social Security Expansion

Concerted campaign includes letter signed by 70 lawmakers and petition signatures from more than 2.5 million Americans

On the eve of a once-in-a-decade White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA)--and in the face of what they describe as the "impending retirement savings crisis facing this nation"--a group of 70 Democratic lawmakers led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) on Sunday called on President Barack Obama to expand Social Security benefits.

"We write today to request your help in ensuring that Americans continue to have sufficient resources to maintain their standard of living in old age," said 69 U.S. House members, plus Sens. Sanders, Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in a letter (pdf) sent to the White House Sunday evening.

Citing widespread and bipartisan support among the American public, the letter urges Obama to "include proposals to expand Social Security benefits for millions of Americans in your policy brief at the upcoming Conference."

In fact, the lawmakers continue, "[a]s Social Security is affordable, universal, efficient, secure, portable, distributionally fair, and popular, expanding its modest benefits should be the number one retirement security recommendation of the White House Conference on Aging."

A coalition of progressive civil society groups echoed that call on Monday, when they delivered more than 2.5 million petition signatures also demanding that the Obama Administration prioritize Social Security expansion when crafting aging policy.

The Hillreports:

Social Security has divided Obama and his liberal allies on Capitol Hill. The president infuriated many Democrats in 2013 when he unveiled a 2014 budget package that would calculate future cost-of-living increases in Social Security using the chained consumer price index (CPI), which would reduce benefits over time.

The move was largely political: Obama had included the provision as an olive branch to Republicans, who have long championed benefit cuts under Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of reducing spending and shrinking government. But the provision did nothing to bring GOP leaders to the budget negotiating table.

Although Obama had emphasized that he would consider the chained-CPI provision only as part of a package deal that included tax hikes, many liberal Democrats were nonetheless outraged that he would open the door to cutting seniors benefits.

As Eric Kingson, co-director of Social Security Works and co-author of the new book Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All, wrote at the Huffington Post last week: "Most American workers face a personal retirement income crisis. Absent expanding Social Security, they will be unable to maintain their standards of living when they grow old."

Kingson urged WHCOA delegates to support expansion provisions including:

  • Modest across the board increase in monthly benefits;
  • Larger minimum benefit payments for low wage-workers;
  • Caregiver credits to offset some of the cost of caring for children, ill or family members with disabilities;
  • Use of the more accurate Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E) to calculate [cost of living adjustments].

"If the goal is to strengthen economic security, WHCOA delegates should make clear that the richest nation at the richest time in the world's history should make a down payment to provide greater retirement income security for today's and tomorrow's seniors," Kingson wrote in a post co-authored with former Social Security Works legislative director Molly Checksfield. "Addressing the retirement income crisis and significant income problems of today's retirees in a way that supports the expansion of the nation's most successful and popular domestic policy will resonate most effectively with the American people."

Last month, Democratic presidential candidate Sanders lashed out in response to Republican rival Jeb Bush's suggestion that the U.S. raise the retirement age--which economists have said amounts to a benefit cut.

"I have a hard time understanding what world Gov. Bush and his billionaire backers live in," Sanders, founder of the Senate Defending Social Security Caucus, said in early June. "When the average Social Security benefit is just $1,328 a month, and more than one-third of our senior citizens rely on Social Security for virtually all of their income, our job must be to expand benefits, not cut them."

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