The Romney-Ryan Budget: A Sketchy Plan that Makes Social Security Less Secure

This is part 5 in a series. Find previous parts here.


With Election Day two weeks away, my series of posts on the Romney-Ryan budget plan is drawing to a close. Today I’m writing about the changes GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have in store for Social Security, and in my final post I’ll cover other social programs on the chopping block and call attention to who stands to profit should Romney’s sketchy deal become reality.

First, any meaningful discussion of Social Security calls for the airing of three simple truths:

Truth #1 – Social Security has played a major role in reducing poverty in the United States for 75 years. Today, one in every six U.S. residents collects Social Security benefits. Included in this group are retirees, people with disabilities and young survivors of deceased parents. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the program keeps 21.4 million women, men and children from living in poverty. People like Social Security because it works and it’s reliable. Wall Street is risky. But Social Security hasn’t missed a payment since the first benefit was issued in 1937.

Truth #2 – Social Security is even more important to women because we live longer than men and typically retire with less savings than men. When you think about it, it’s not hard to see why that is so. On average, women are paid less than men, either due to outright wage discrimination or because women are clustered into low-paying fields. Over a lifetime, this disparity really adds up. Additionally, women are less likely than men to work for employers that provide pensions, and we often take time out of the paid workforce to care for children or other family members. Women of color retire at an even greater economic disadvantage than white women.

Truth #3 – Wealthy conservatives have been after Social Security since its inception. This is not a delusion — it’s a fact. For decades, right-wing think tanks have hatched several key myths and sound bites that politicians have repeated over and over again: The program is going bankrupt; the money’s gone; it’s a Ponzi scheme. These messages have sunk so deeply into the consciousness of this nation that you often hear people under 40 or even 50 state that “Social Security won’t be there for me when I retire.” Encouraged financial moguls and their congressional water-carriers have made numerous moves toward privatizing Social Security, including a big push in the 1980s and again under the presidency of George W. Bush.

Here’s a compelling way of looking at the situation: Truth #1 — the success of Social Security and its corresponding support from voters — has prevented Truth #3 from producing any concrete progress. But Truth #2 keeps the efforts of Truth #3 alive — meaning, conservative elites are much more likely to continue trying to dismantle a social insurance system that disproportionately benefits women and particularly women of color. It’s so much easier to funnel other people’s money into the risky stock market when you truly do see them as different, undeserving, not peers — literally as “the Other.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Romney and Ryan share the right-wing thirst for converting Social Security to a private program under which billions of previously safeguarded dollars would flow into Wall Street traders’ hands. But these guys know their agenda is so deeply unpopular with the vast majority of voters that they have to tread very carefully, blurring their ultimate goal.

So, the Romney-Ryan budget plan is fairly cryptic on the subject. Here’s what it has to say: “[T]his budget calls for action on Social Security by requiring both the President and the Congress to put forward specific ideas and legislation to ensure the sustainable solvency of this critical program.” The budget raises suggestions such as “reforms that take into account increases in longevity, to arrest the demographic problems that are undermining Social Security’s finances.” In other words, raise the retirement age. The Romney-Ryan plan claims that “[t]he solutions are clear,” but it doesn’t really commit to anything specific.

The Oct. 11 vice presidential debate did offer a glimpse at the contrasting philosophies held by those who want to quell the panic and take responsible steps toward protecting and improving Social Security versus those who want to stir up enough public distrust in the system that gambling on Wall Street will seem like a viable alternative.

When asked about the program, Rep. Paul Ryan pulled out a string of classic right-wing scare tactics: “If we don’t shore up Social Security, when we run out of the IOUs, when the program goes bankrupt, a 25 percent across-the-board benefit cut kicks in on current seniors in the middle of their retirement.”

Vice President Joe Biden replied: “If we had listened to Romney, Governor Romney, and the congressman during the Bush years, imagine where all those seniors would be now if their money had been in the market.”

Ryan pulled out the standard caveat that he’s not talking about changing the system for people who have already retired or are about to retire: “[W]hat I’ve always agreed is let younger Americans have a voluntary choice of making their money work faster for them within the Social Security system.”

But what about the single mom — one of Ryan’s “younger Americans” — who’s working two jobs trying to support her family when suddenly all the money in her private retirement account is gone because Wall Street had another collapse? Now she has to start all over again. Is that fair? Is it even remotely wise to put the people of our nation, the people who drive our economy, at such risk?

Romney and Ryan know that there is no compelling reason to turn Social Security over to the private market. Those with enough money to invest in the market can already do so. But most people need the economic security that comes from a stable system of retirement insurance that isn’t out to make its shareholders rich.

You may be asking yourself at this point: But isn’t Social Security in danger of falling behind, now that the Baby Boomers are starting to retire? Don’t we need to something?

Yes, we do. But we don’t have to settle for what the privatizers are selling us. After all, they’re working for the one-hundredth of one percent, not us. In fact, the elites’ lobbyists have produced policies that are draining money from the Social Security trust fund. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “Low- and middle-income workers and their families would have had far better income growth over the past 30 years if economic policies had not directed the fruits of economic growth to the highest-income Americans.” In effect, fairer wages would have resulted in more payroll taxes going into the system for the last three decades.

Elites, meanwhile, have enjoyed drastically lower payroll tax rates than the rest of us. Currently, there is a cap on the amount of a worker’s wages that are subject to Social Security deductions: If you make less than $110,100, all of your salary is in play; if you are paid more than that, everything over $110,100 is in the clear. For most of us, the payroll tax is about six percent. But for someone earning $1 million per year, it’s 0.6 percent! You see, as income in this country increasingly shifts to higher earners, less and less money flows into the Social Security pool.

This May, the National Organization for Women Foundation put out a report along with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Unlike the Social Security raiders, we see the good in the system — its strengths and potential.Breaking the Social Security Glass Ceiling: A Proposal to Modernize Women’s Benefits presents 10 improvements, such as providing credits for caregivers, that would make Social Security more equitable while safeguarding benefits for women. Simply eliminating the cap on payroll contributions would pay for the vast majority of these improvements and ensure the system’s solvency for at least 75 years. A higher minimum wage and a lower unemployment rate would pay for the rest by creating higher payrolls, thus more contributions into the system. Small tweaks in the payroll tax rate are also both feasible and promising.

Big business and the wealthy, who have an outsized influence on our discourse, will fight tooth and nail against common-sense options like these. They will generously fund the campaigns of their wealthy friends, like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and do all they can to control the media outlets from which the voters get their information.

Women like Linda, who would be completely dependent on her daughter if it weren’t for her monthly Social Security check, rarely have a voice in this process. But they do have a voice at the polls on Election Day. The people’s greatest defense against attacks on Social Security is our voting power. And politicians know it.

That is why Romney and Ryan are working so hard to downplay their Social Security plans. But we need to send them the message that women are not fooled. We may not have access to their billions of dollars, but we can and must use our votes to let them know: Social Security is ours, and we will continue to protect it for generations to come.

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington post blog on 10/22/2012

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