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The Latest Devious Republican Attack On Social Security

Today, two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security for most of their income; one-third rely on those modest earned benefits for virtually all of their income.

"One of Social Security’s many strengths is that its benefits are guaranteed and, unlike savings, cannot be outlived." (Photo: Courtesy of AFGE, Flickr | CC 2.0)

"One of Social Security’s many strengths is that its benefits are guaranteed and, unlike savings, cannot be outlived." (Photo: Courtesy of AFGE, Flickr | CC 2.0)

Ever since Social Security came into existence, Republican politicians and their billionaire donors have attempted to destroy it. As an effective and incredibly popular government program, it is anathema to the GOP's anti-government ideology.

But precisely because it is so popular, including with Republican voters, attacks on our nation's Social Security system have failed time and time again. Now Republican politicians are ramping up for a new, sneaky assault: Offering to provide young Americans some relief from crippling student debt and our country's shameful lack of paid family leave — if they forfeit some of their future Social Security benefits. 

The first iteration of this scheme came from Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.) who recently introduced the so-called Student Security Act of 2017. This bill would allow young people to pay off a portion of their student loans with their future Social Security benefits. It would force them to choose between financial security in young adulthood and financial security in retirement.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Kristin Shapiro and Andrew Biggs proposed a similar plan to fund paid parental leave. This plan has all of the same pitfalls as Garrett’s, but thus far it has gotten more attention. Two major figures in the Republican Party, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ivanka Trump, are reportedly fans of the idea.

Like Garrett’s bill, the Shapiro-Biggs plan is an attack on young people. Our country faces a looming retirement crisis caused by the decline of traditional pensions, the inadequacy of 401(k)s, and decades of stagnant wages. The younger you are, the more serious the crisis.

Today, two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security for most of their income; one-third rely on those modest earned benefits for virtually all of their income. Those percentages will go up as today’s young people age.

Rubio and Trump would force workers to either forfeit some of those benefits or forfeit spending time with their newborn children. Garrett would force young people to enter adulthood with massive student debt or forfeit part of their earned Social Security. This is just the latest battle in the war against Social Security.

We are the wealthiest country in the world at the wealthiest moment in our history. The United States of America can afford tuition-free public college, paid family leave (as well as medical and caregiving leave, which Shapiro and Biggs do not mention), and expanded Social Security benefits. We just need to require the wealthiest among us to contribute their fair share.

Over the last 50 years, workers have generated enormous increases in productivity. But it’s their bosses who have reaped the gains. Billionaires, along with their bought and paid-for politicians, have rigged the system to benefit themselves instead of working people. The resulting explosion of wealth and income inequality is both immoral and destabilizing. Our country should fight that inequality by (1) expanding Social Security both to increase benefit levels and add paid family and medical leave, and (2) making public colleges tuition free. Citizens in other, less wealthy nations already enjoy these benefits.

The Washington Post and other apologists for the wealthy make the laughable, obvious point that “the rich have finite resources.” These protectors of great wealth never acknowledge that the wealthiest contribute a smaller percentage of their earnings to Social Security than minimum wage workers — who also have finite resources!

Fresh off passing a $1.5 trillion giveaway to the wealthy, Republicans continue to work to shield their billionaire donors. Politicians like Garrett and Rubio recognize that proposals for tuition free public college and paid leave are incredibly popular — and so is funding them by requiring the wealthiest to contribute their fair share. The GOP can’t let that happen, so the party’s politicians and think tankers are now trying to appear to jump on the bandwagon, while, in reality, offering hardworking Americans a Sophie’s Choice of greater economic insecurity now or later.

These proposals reflect a willful misunderstanding of what our Social Security system is. It is insurance against the loss of wages. At its start, it ensured wages against loss in the event of old age. In 1939, it added protection in the event of the death of a breadwinner. In 1956, it added protection in the event of long-term disability. It is long past time that it is expanded to protect workers when wages are lost as the result of the birth or adoption of a child and other family caregiving, as well as short-term disability (such as following surgery).

One of Social Security’s many strengths is that its benefits are guaranteed and, unlike savings, cannot be outlived. Republican politicians have a longstanding goal to convert Social Security’s wage insurance into inadequate savings accounts that would force workers to pay enormous “management fees” to Wall Street. They tried directly in 2005, but the American people overwhelmingly rejected their plan. With these current proposals, they are seeking to seed the ground to make their plan more acceptable.

Both the Garrett bill and the Shapiro-Biggs plan treat Social Security like a private account, a piggy bank that people can borrow against. Carrie Lukas of the Independent Women’s Forum, a leading proponent of the Shapiro-Biggs paid leave plan, admitted as much in a recent article in The Federalist. She stated that the goal of this plan is to change how “Americans think about Social Security, which has long been considered the untouchable third rail of politics.” Lukas candidly makes clear their goal that, through proposals like those of Garrett and Shapiro-Biggs, “public opinion will undergo a sea change to embrace personal accounts or other substantial Social Security reforms” — code for ending Social Security as we know it.

Garrett and Rubio would like nothing more than to convince even one Democrat to sign onto one of their Social Security scams. They would then storm cable news and the op-ed pages touting their “bipartisan, centrist bill” as an alternative to legitimate, sound popular proposals to increase Social Security’s modest benefits, add paid family and medical leave, and make public college tuition free. But as long as Democrats stand united against this latest scheme in the Republican war on Social Security, it will fail just like all past attempts.

Our message for those who support Social Security is, in short, stay vigilant and don’t be fooled.

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Nancy Altman

Nancy Altman

Nancy J. Altman has a thirty-five year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. She is co-director of Social Security Works and co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition and campaign. She is the author of The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble (John Wiley & Sons, 2005) and co-author (with Eric Kingson) of Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It will Help Us All (The New Press, 2015).

Linda Benesch

Linda Benesch is the Communications Director at Social Security Works, a national organization fighting to address our nation's retirement income crisis by protecting and expanding Social Security.

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