The good old days weren’t so good for seniors before Social Security was enacted 82 years ago today. Nearly half of all older Americans lived in poverty. Today, the figure is down to nine percent. Luckier seniors were supported by their families; the less fortunate literally went to the poor house. The father of Social Security, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, observed after visiting poor houses in New York, “It tears my heart to see those old men and women there, more than almost anything that I know.”
Early in his first term, FDR committed himself to enacting social insurance for the elderly. “I am looking for a sound means… to provide… security against several of the great disturbing factors in life – especially those which relate to unemployment and old age,” he said.
Part of FDR’s genius was to fund Social Security through workers’ payroll contributions, giving them a “legal, moral, and political right” to collect their benefits. He predicted that this self-funding mechanism guaranteed that no politician would be able to “scrap my Social Security program” — though that hasn’t stopped some from trying.
Today, Social Security provides basic financial security for some 61 million Americans. Two out of three seniors rely on Social Security for most of their income, and one-third of seniors depend on it for at least 90 percent of their income. It is one of the most efficient federal programs. Less than 1 percent of Social Security’s revenue goes to administrative costs — the rest, to beneficiaries.
Why, then, are some of our elected leaders not celebrating the anniversary of this extraordinary program that has kept seniors, the disabled, and their families out of poverty for more than eight decades?
It’s important to understand that the political right opposed Social Security from the start. “Never in the history of the world has any measure been as insidiously designed as to… enslave workers,” thundered Congressman John Taber (R-N.Y.) when the Social Security Act was first introduced.
Congressman James W. Wadsworth was certain that Social Security would “threaten the integrity of our institutions and… pull the (R-N.Y.) pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants,” while Rep. Daniel Reed (R-N.Y.) warned simply that “the lash of the dictator will be felt.”
Today, the rhetoric of Social Security’s opponents is less apocalyptic, but just as disingenuous. Some peddle the myth that Social Security affects the federal budget when, in fact, it is fully self-funded and contributes nary a penny to the deficit. Others make the false claim that Social Security is going “bankrupt” and must be cut, when Congress could enact modest and manageable measures to keep the system solvent well into this century — including lifting the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share.
Eighty-two years after Social Security was created, why doesn’t the agency that administers the program for 61 million Americans have an adequate budget? The Social Security Administration (SSA) is one of the most efficient federal agencies, yet its budget was slashed in 2011 and never fully restored.
These draconian cuts have led to shuttered field offices, longer hold times and busy signals on the toll-free phone line, and average wait times for disability hearings exceeding 500 days. Instead of increasing funding, the House spending plan for 2018 effectively cuts SSA’s budget by $300 million when adjusted for inflation.
Like retirement and disability benefits, SSA is funded directly through workers’ payroll contributions. Congress should not be squeezing the agency when it's workloads are at all-time highs. American workers who have paid into the system their entire lives have a right to expect that SSA is properly funded so it can provide the high-quality services they need when filing for benefits.
We are disappointed that at a time when the agency is already underfunded and understaffed, SSA is continuing to offer inducements for senior staffers to retire early. With demand for its services growing, the agency needs more experienced manpower, not less.
In the face of budget hawks’ depriving SSA an adequate budget — and promising to “reform” Social Security by cutting benefits, shrinking cost-of-living adjustments, or raising the retirement age — Social Security remains enormously popular with the American public.
Poll after poll indicates that majorities of voters across party lines support the program and don’t want to see it cut. That doesn’t mean Social Security shouldn’t continue to evolve with the times. It has been successfully modified over the years, either to expand benefits or keep the program on a sound financial footing. Today, with gaping wealth inequality, flat incomes, and working families struggling to save for retirement, Social Security benefits should be boosted, not reduced. That would truly be something for all Americans to celebrate.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.
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