Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a Senate hearing

U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a November 14, 2023 hearing in Washington, D.C. on corporate green and unions.

(Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders Calls for Major Overhaul to Solve US Retirement Crisis

"If Congress can bail out the crooks on Wall Street," said the senator, "please do not tell me that Congress can't support a secure retirement for working Americans."

Days after hearing the testimony of a fourth-generation autoworker whose family has experienced first-hand the shredding of the social contract over the course of several decades, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders demanded on Monday that Congress swiftly pass legislation to cut the "unacceptable" rate of poverty among senior citizens and ensure that American workers can once again "retire with the dignity and the respect that they deserve."

In an op-ed for Fox News, Vermont independent senator wrote about the hearing he held last week as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee about the country's retirement crisis.

The committee heard from Sara Schambers, whose grandfather retired at 55 from his job as an autoworker at Ford Motor Company, receiving "a pension and good healthcare" provided by the company where he'd worked for three decades.

Schambers' grandmother had to retire early due to a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease, "but she didn’t have to choose between paying her medical bills and buying dinner for her family, because her job provided her with the retirement security she needed."

In sharp contrast, Schambers told Sanders and the rest of the committee that she will not have healthcare or a pension when she retires from her job as an autoworker.

"For generations, getting a job at Ford meant stability and security," said Schambers. "It meant being able to plan for yourself and your children. It meant being able to buy a house and see a future for yourself. But for those of us who were hired in after the financial crisis, that has not been our truth."

Schambers said auto companies have been "adamant that they couldn't afford to add to our pension liability... and that giving back our pensions could affect their stock prices and possibly lead to lower credit ratings. Nowadays, a stock price is more important than 150,000 autoworkers."

In his op-ed, Sanders wrote that the loss of pension and fixed benefit plans among American workers—60% of whom had them in the early 1980s, compared to just 4% in 2023—has led to a 23% poverty rate among senior citizens, one of the highest rates compared to other wealthy countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

"In Denmark, only 3% of seniors live in poverty," wrote Sanders. "In France, the senior poverty rate is 4.4%. In Germany, it's 9.1%. In Canada, it's 12.3%. In the United Kingdom, it's 15.5%."

Sanders called on Congress to pass the Social Security Expansion Act, which he introduced last year with nine other senators, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.).

The bill would make Social Security solvent for the next 75 years and expand the programs benefits for seniors and people with disabilities by $2,400 a year, making a difference to the 1-in-4 senior citizens who now live on less than $15,000 per year and 1-in-2 who live on less than $30,000 per year, as the Senate HELP Committee noted in a report ahead of the hearing last week.

In keeping with Sanders' longtime push to require the wealthy to pay their fair share into the program, the Social Security Expansion Act would apply the Social Security payroll tax to all income, including those from capital gains and dividends, for those who make more than $250,000 per year.

Currently, the senator wrote, the wealthiest Americans benefit from a cap on the Social Security payroll tax.

"Absurdly and unfairly, a billionaire pays the same amount of money into Social Security as someone who makes $168,700 a year," wrote Sanders. "That means, if you make up to $168,700 a year, you pay 6.2% of your income in Social Security taxes. But if you make 10 times more—$1,687,000—you pay just 0.62% of your income in Social Security taxes."

"That may make sense to someone," he added. It doesn't make sense to me."

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Sanders was asked about a Republican proposal to raise the retirement age instead of properly funding Social Security by taxing the rich.

"Brilliant idea," said the senator sarcastically. "Yes, we've got our people, 87-year-olds packing groceries in a supermarket. You know, really? People have worked hard their whole lives, this is the richest country in the history of the world. Raise the retirement age, cut benefits? I don't think so."

Sanders proposed that every corporation in America should be required to either provide their employees with a retirement plan or "give workers the option of contributing to a federal pension plan similar to what members of Congress and federal employees receive."

"If Congress can provide trillions of dollars in tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations," said the senator, "if Congress can bail out the crooks on Wall Street who caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, homes, and life savings back in 2008, please do not tell me that Congress can't support a secure retirement for working Americans."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.