Democrats should make Social Security a top issue in the midterms — here’s how and why
The nation is facing a retirement income crisis. Social Security is unquestionably the nation’s most important source of retirement income. But the last time Congress expanded Social Security was when Richard Nixon was president. Unless this Congress addresses the crisis by expanding Social Security, too many Americans will be unable to retire without a drastic and precipitous drop in their standards of living.
As the wealthiest country in the history of the world, America can afford to protect and expand Social Security — if we require those at the top to contribute their fair share. The good news is that this Congress is poised to take action.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), chair of the House Social Security Subcommittee, just held a hearing on his legislation, Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust. The 2100 Act is co-sponsored by 90 percent of House Democrats and incorporates all of the expansions that President Joe Biden promised during his winning campaign.
The legislation increases Social Security’s modest benefits both across the board and also in long overdue ways. It adds a caregiver credit, restores student benefits, improves benefits for widow(er)s, and much, much more. It pays for every penny by requiring the highest paid earners to contribute to Social Security at the same rate as the rest of us.
Although no Republican politician has co-sponsored the expansion legislation, protecting and expanding Social Security has strong bipartisan support among those who count most — the American people. Large majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents overwhelmingly support Social Security expansion. But Republican politicians are listening to their corporate donors, not their voters.
Now is the time for Democrats, who currently control both houses of Congress and the White House, to bring Social Security expansion to a vote. There’s no better way to show constituents the difference between the two parties on this essential, bread-and-butter issue.
Social Security is a priority for voters. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted in 2018 found that 56 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump and 55 percent of those who identify as Republican would be more likely to vote for a candidate who “supported expanding and increasing Social Security.”
Expanding Social Security, while requiring those at the top to contribute more, will help to reverse income and wealth inequality — an issue President Obama called “the defining challenge of our time.” That inequality not only exacerbates the retirement income crisis; it also costs Social Security billions of dollars of revenue every year.
Because the earnings of high-income workers have increased much more rapidly than the average over the last several decades, an increasing amount of their earned income falls above the current $142,800 cap on which Social Security contributions are assessed. That cap has slipped from covering 90 percent of nationwide wages, as Congress intended, to 83 percent today. As a result of that seemingly small slippage, those at the top paid $84.4 billion less to Social Security just in 2020 alone. Those are billions of dollars that should have gone to Social Security but instead stayed in the pockets of the wealthiest among us.
Moreover, congressional action on legislation which both expands benefits and reduces Social Security’s projected shortfall by more than half, as the 2100 Act does, will begin to restore the intangible benefit of peace of mind that Social Security is intended to provide. Too many Americans have lost that sense of security because they have heard, erroneously, that Social Security will disappear and they will never receive their earned benefits. A vote on safeguarding and expanding Social Security will restore the American people’s confidence that Congress is a responsible steward of their earned benefits.
Expanding Social Security will strengthen the economy and create jobs. Because the vast majority of Social Security’s 65 million beneficiaries are low or moderate income, they tend to spend their benefits immediately in the local community in which they live. Social Security is especially important to rural communities, which tend to be older.
In short, Social Security is a solution. Protecting and expanding Social Security’s modest benefits is wise policy and represents the will of the people. It will improve the economy, create jobs, and add substantially to the security of working families.
It is imperative that this Congress vote on Social Security. Democrats must make Social Security their next top priority. They must force Republicans to stop hiding and make their views clear in an up-or-down vote. If they do, voters will reward the party that created Social Security and continues to protect and improve it.
The Democrats will then be following the vision of President Franklin Roosevelt who proclaimed, when he signed Social Security into law, that he was laying down “a cornerstone in a structure which…is by no means complete.” President Biden, Chairman Larson, and the Democratic Party are poised to take the next step in completing this essential structure.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.