Social security is a lifeline for many

Jan Koch

Imagine that you are living in December in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Christmas is coming and you would like to give everyone a present. However, you are now elderly and have no income.

Throughout your working years, you only made enough money to support your family with little left for retirement. Your children are now having to help you out even though they can hardly put food on the table for their family.

This was the situation prior to the New Deal. Citizens up until this time had no government assistance programs in the United States. Germany had begun to adopt laws to improve the conditions of workers in the late 1800s. Most of the other countries of Europe had already enacted similar programs by the early 1900s. There was still the belief among conservatives in Congress that poor people were to blame for their own misfortune.

The United States was one of the last major industrialized nations to establish a social security system. In 1934, at least half of all Americans aged 65 and older were poor. However, Americans up until this time believed the government should not be responsible for caring for the aged, disabled, or needy.

It wasn’t until 1935 that Congress finally passed the Social Security Act. It took the depression for Americans to realize that economic misfortune could result from events over which workers had no control.

By signing this act on August 14, 1935, President Roosevelt became the first president to advocate federal assistance for the elderly. Social Security was designed as wage insurance. The system’s purpose has always been, to replace wages so that people are able to maintain their standards of living in the event of retirement, disability or death.

Over the decades since its inception, the Social Security program has been tweaked many times. It has become the nation’s largest and most generous program for disabled workers, providing 8.9 million with benefits. It is also the nation’s largest and most generous children’s program, serving 4.3 million children.

Social Security is also the nation’s most important life insurance policy, providing benefits to widows and widowers whose spouse has died, to many younger spouses caring for dependent children, and to children whose parent has died.

Despite being called a socialist program, Social Security has become one of the most successful programs in history. Without Social Security, 21.9 million Americans, including 15.2 million seniors and 1.1 million children, would have fallen below the poverty level.

In 2005, President George W. Bush toured the nation touting his major initiative to reform Social Security. His proposed plan partially privatized it by creating personal accounts and options to permit Americans to divert a portion of their Social Security tax (FICA) into secured investments. However, Americans were not convinced this was a better plan.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump promised he would “save” Social Security, but as president he has repeatedly proposed billions in cuts to Social Security programs. His 2020 budget proposed a $26 billion cut to Social Security programs mirroring what Republicans in Congress would like to see.

Social Security’s conservative opponents have tried to repeal and replace it with from the beginning. One argument is that the program is going bankrupt. This is not true. Nearly all (97%) of its income comes from the contributions of workers and employers, or interest on these contributions. Hence, as long as there are workers in America, Social Security will have income. Workers will continue to receive 100% of promised benefits until around 2034. At that time, benefits could be reduced if nothing is done.

One Republican idea to “save” Social Security is to raise the full retirement age from 67 to 69. This would be especially unfair to low-income workers and minorities, who are more likely to work in physically demanding jobs. It would also discriminate against the growing number of elderly unemployed, who have a much harder time finding new work after being laid off.

Social Security will only become more important to future beneficiaries. Wages have been stagnant. Employer-sponsored traditional pensions are under attack. Student loan debt continues to grow. These factors make it extremely difficult for future retirees to maintain their stand of living in retirement.

Increases in Social Security are based on yearly cost-of-living adjustments. In January of 2020 recipients will get a 1.6% increase in their monthly benefits which amounts to $24 per month for an average individual. However, standard Medicare Part B monthly premiums will be $9.10 higher.

Just over three in five seniors rely on Social Security benefits for most of their income. If anything, Social Security benefits should be expanded. Retirement, disability and survivor benefits are inadequately low. One plan is for Congress to require the wealthiest to pay their fair share by contributing a little more.

We never want to go back to a time when the elderly do not have a dignified retirement. The future should allow the holidays to be a time when everyone has the means to spread the joy of the season.

Jan Koch is a Shawano resident and the chairwoman for the Shawano County Democratic Party.