FDR signs Social Security legislation

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Social Security legislation.

(Photo: via Getty Images)

What Should Congress Give Social Security for its 88th Birthday?

Lawmakers should approve Biden’s choice for SSA commissioner and his request for additional funding, then vote to expand the popular program.

On Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law. Eighty-eight years later, our Social Security system is among the most successful and popular government programs in history.

Nearly every worker pays premiums (Federal Insurance Contributions or FICA) for Social Security. In return, they receive insurance benefits when they retire, become disabled, or lose a family breadwinner.

Social Security is secure, efficient, and the most important source of retirement income for the vast majority of Americans. Social Security does have one major flaw, though: Its benefits are too low.

Too many Americans fear that they must work until they die, because they will not be able to retire without a drastic decline in their standard of living. The solution is to expand Social Security.

The average Social Security benefit is only $1,700 a month—considerably lower than in peer nations. That is not enough for working families to enjoy a secure retirement or make ends meet when tragedy strikes in the form of serious and permanent disabilities or death.

It’s not surprising that our nation is facing a retirement income crisis. Too many Americans fear that they must work until they die, because they will not be able to retire without a drastic decline in their standard of living. The solution is to expand Social Security.

Fortunately, President Joe Biden ran on a promise to expand Social Security, and congressional Democrats have introduced multiple bills to do so. One of these is the Social Security 2100 Act, which is sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) and co-sponsored by more than 175 of his fellow House Democrats. Another is the Social Security Expansion Act, which is sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

These bills, as well as numerous other expansion proposals, have much in common. They would keep Social Security strong for generations to come, averting the modest shortfall in its trust fund that some politicians have used as an excuse to demand benefit cuts. They would increase benefits for everyone, with additional targeted increases for low-income beneficiaries, family caregivers, the very old, and others. Additionally, they would update the annual cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the real expenses beneficiaries face and prevent benefits from eroding.

These are commonsense proposals that enjoy broad support from Americans across the political spectrum. Indeed, 83% of Democrats, 73% of independents, and 73% of Republicans want to expand Social Security and pay for it by making the wealthy contribute more. Yet not a single Republican member of Congress is signed on to a bill expanding Social Security benefits.

Instead, Republicans in Congress support cutting Social Security and ultimately ending the program as we know it. This is laid out in the budget proposal from the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group that counts about 70% of House Republicans as members.

The RSC budget would raise the retirement age to 69, which is mathematically equivalent to a 13% benefit cut. It would also decimate middle-class benefits that workers have earned and paid for. The Republican goal is to turn Social Security into a flat, poverty-level benefit so that it loses political support and can be destroyed.

Nor is the RSC budget the only Republican plan to cut Social Security. Every major Republican presidential candidate, including former President Donald Trump (if you go back to 2000), is on the record supporting Social Security cuts. Republican politicians are ignoring the will of their voters in favor of protecting their wealthy donors.

Republicans have also been waging a quiet war on the Social Security Administration (SSA), the agency that administers the program. Since 2010, largely Republican-controlled Congresses have slashed its budget by 17%, even as the number of beneficiaries grew by 22%. This has forced the agency to lay off thousands of workers, close field offices, and reduce hours.

The SSA needs adequate funding and strong leadership. Biden has nominated former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to serve as SSA commissioner. Biden has also requested a 10% increase in funding for the SSA. The best 88th birthday gifts Congress could give Social Security are to swiftly confirm O’Malley and to grant Biden’s funding request.

Congress should then take up legislation to expand Social Security. If Republicans refuse, Democrats should make Social Security a major issue in next year’s election and urge voters to support the party that is working to expand, instead of cut, their earned benefits.

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