This year’s Thanksgiving is far from normal. COVID is raging across the country, millions are out of work, and many of us are seeing our loved ones on a screen instead of across the table. Yet we can still be thankful, and not just for the football and food. Now more than ever, we can be thankful for the chance to make government work even better for all of us.
Our Social Security system is government at its best. Without it, the consequences of COVID and the resulting economic fallout would be far worse. Social Security provides seniors and people with disabilities with the financial resources to safely shelter in place. In multi-generational families, where younger members have lost their jobs, Social Security’s guaranteed monthly benefits continue to arrive. They provide a stable and reliable source of income. Social Security beneficiaries spend their earned benefits in their communities, helping local businesses weather the pandemic.
The nearly 65 million current beneficiaries and their families aren’t the only ones who benefit from Social Security’s life insurance, disability insurance, and retirement annuities. Many of the 265,000 Americans who have succumbed to COVID left behind spouses and children who will now receive the Social Security benefits their loved ones earned for them.
Many older workers who have been laid off will either not be able to find work or will not be safe returning to work. If they’re age 62 or older, they can claim their earned Social Security retirement benefits early – perhaps, earlier than they had planned. And a number of COVID patients, known as “long-haulers,” may never fully recover and be able to return to work. In that sad circumstance, they can count on the Social Security disability benefits that they have earned.
The COVID pandemic and resulting economic collapse are arguably our worst national crisis since the Great Depression. A major difference is that, this time, we have our Social Security system in place to help protect us. And Social Security could be doing even more.
Social Security has one major flaw — benefits are too low. They averaged only $1,400 a month in October. We need to increase those modest benefits so that no one who retires, becomes too disabled to work, or loses a spouse or parent ends up in poverty.
President-elect Joe Biden recognizes this. He ran for President on a platform of protecting and expanding Social Security. With people across our country suffering as a result of the pandemic and economic fallout, Biden should prioritize expanding Social Security, our country’s most successful government program, during his first year in office.
Much of the groundwork is already there. The Social Security 2100 Act, which would expand Social Security benefits and keep the program strong through the end of the century and beyond, enjoys robust support in the House of Representatives. This legislation is sponsored by Congressman John Larson (D-CT), chair of the Social Security subcommittee, and co-sponsored by nearly 90 percent of House Democrats.
The 2100 Act’s sponsors range from progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to moderates like Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA). It shares many features in common with Biden’s own Social Security expansion plan.
The momentum is building in the U.S. Senate, as well. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), both longtime Social Security champions, co-chair the Expand Social Security Caucus. Eighteen other Senators are also members of the caucus, including Biden’s running mate and soon to be governing partner, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
During his first month in office, Biden should work with Social Security champions in Congress to introduce legislation that the Democratic Party and the nation can rally behind. The House of Representatives should hold an extensive series of hearings that highlight the nation’s looming retirement income crisis and other challenges for which an expanded Social Security is the solution. The legislation should go through so-called regular order with a public mark up in Committee and a recorded vote on the Floor.
This will put Republicans in a bind. Protecting and expanding Social Security is extremely popular across the political spectrum. The Democrats should call Republicans’ bluff and see if they are truly willing to oppose such a popular and wise policy. If forced to vote, Republicans will have three choices: Offer an unquestionably unpopular alternative that cuts benefits, oppose the Democrats’ plan without offering anything of their own, or go along with the Democratic plan.
If Democrats win both Senate seats in Georgia, they will control the Senate and can set the agenda. If that happens, Senate Democrats too can hold extensive hearings, building support for expanding Social Security and returning it to long-range actuarial balance by requiring the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share. Republicans in the Senate can either stand in the way (unless Democrats eliminate the filibuster) or get on board.
If they stand in the way, the people will know for whom to vote in 2022. If they go along, we can give thanks next Thanksgiving for a stronger, more adequate Social Security system.