Senator Elizabeth Warren added her name to the growing list of legislators who want to expand—not cut—Social Security benefits during a Monday afternoon speech on the Senate floor.
Warren began by outlining the increasing financial strain faced by elderly Americans, and built towards a call for expanded benefits:
Among working families on the verge of retirement, about a third have no retirement savings of any kind, and another third have total savings that are less than their annual income. Many seniors have seen their housing wealth shrink as well. According to AARP, in 2012, one out of every seven older homeowners was paying down a mortgage that was higher than the value of their house.
And just as they need to rely more than ever on pensions, employers are withdrawing from their traditional role in helping provide a secure retirement. Two decades ago, more than a third of all private sector workers—35 percent—had traditional, defined benefit pensions—pensions that guaranteed a certain monthly payment that retirees knew they could depend on. Today, that number has been cut in half—only 18 percent of private sector workers have defined benefit pensions. Employers have replaced guaranteed retirement income with savings plans, like 401(k) plans, that leave the retiree at the mercy of a market that rises and falls, and, sometimes, at the mercy of dangerous investment products. These plans often fall short of what retirees need, and nearly half of all American workers don’t even have access to those limited plans. This leaves more than 44 million workers without any retirement assistance from their employer.
Add all of this up—the dramatic decline in individual savings and the dramatic decline of guaranteed retirement benefits and employer support in return for a lifetime of work—and we’re left with a retirement crisis—a crisis that is as real and as frightening as any policy problem facing the United States today.
I hold deep values, and I look at basic facts. Today, Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next twenty years and even after that will continue to pay most benefits. With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years—and could even increase benefits. The tools to help us build a future are available to us now. We don’t start the debate by deciding who gets kicked to the curb. We are Americans.
The context of Warren’s remarks is crucial Social Security benefits are under unique threat, given dramatic and seemingly endless crisis negotiating over the federal budget and a Democratic president is prepared (and some might say eager) to enact Chained-CPI, which would, even under the most generous formula, take $15,615 in cumulative benefits from the average senior who lived to 95.
Warren not only rebuffed that idea in her speech but provided a critical boost to the emerging campaign to expand Social Security. Almost everything Warren has done in recent weeks has been closely watched by 2016 hobbyists (not a trivial constituency among Beltway journalists), and she used that attention to juice the emerging pro-expansion movement. The Washington Post published an editorial Monday morning criticizing the campaign to expand Social Security—as sure a sign as any that it has arrived on the Washington scene—and Warren mentioned the editorial in her remarks and pushed back on the writers for, among other things, putting scare quotes around “retirement crisis.”
While naturally there will be many people left unpersuaded by Warren’s pitch, the point is that she’s thrusting the debate forward and helping to entrench the pro-expansion movement deeper into the political conversation. It was a significant moment.