As long ago as the early 1930s, through the Townsend movement and other efforts, our parents and grandparents (and a few of us) fought for a pension plan for people 65 and older. The U.S. was one of the last developed nations to adopt a national pension plan when the Social Security Act was finally passed in 1935. Social Security has become one of the most successful, and certainly the most widely supported, social service programs in this country.
Old or young, poor or comfortably set, man or woman, regardless of race or ethnicity, we’ve all understood the value of this plan. Social Security made retirement without destitution possible for workers and boosted the retirement incomes of the middle class. Social Security benefits make it possible for elders to maintain their independence, which research time and again has shown to be their preference. When we won Medicare in 1965, elders no longer had to spend themselves into the poorhouse to cover their hospital bills.
Now all of this is under attack by the Bush administration. As if the so-called Medicare prescription drug benefit, Bush’s gift to the pharmaceuticals, weren’t enough, now he plans to give our Social Security to Wall Street, via privatization.
The privatization of Social Security is being sold as the salvation of the program, giving younger workers the “opportunity” to invest their own Social Security taxes. The claim is this will ensure not only that there will be benefits when they retire, but high benefits, so they can retire well. Indeed, many in younger generations are already convinced that Social Security will be gone long before they retire.
Certainly the retirement of the large “baby boom” generation will be expensive. In 2001 the Social Security Advisory Board warned that the trust fund would be depleted by 2037. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), on the other hand, reports that Social Security, even without any reform, will be able to fund full benefits through 2042 and partial benefits long after that (www.ncpssm.org).
At the November meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, a hastily called, unannounced speak-out on the politics of Social Security, privatization drew an impassioned crowd, something seldom seen at academic conferences. Robert Binstock, of Case Western Reserve University, pointed out that privatization will divert Social Security payroll taxes from the trust fund. When this happens, trust fund reserves will have to be used to pay benefits for current retirees. This will deplete the trust fund earlier, rather than later! This is hardly a move to save the program.
What about the promise to our youth of a rich retirement through investments? Remember Enron? NCPSSM reminds us that “between 1999 and 2002, market-invested 401(k) accounts of people over 60 lost 25 percent of their value,” and “between 2001 and 2003, the NASDAQ lost 75 percent of its value.” Do we really want to trust Wall Street with our Social Security?
A young man in the speak-out audience was persuaded of the need for activism when told that if we don’t save Social Security, “Your parents are going to be living with you.” He loves his parents, but isn’t financially prepared to support them. Ninety-one percent of elders receive Social Security benefits (Social Security Administration, 2001). For 20 percent it is their only source of income. If we lose this program, we will return to the dark days of old age as a time of poverty.
Social Security has overwhelming support among the American people. If the Bush administration and its right-wing supporters in Congress are able to derail this, our most popular social service program, we’ll lose it all. We can, and must, save Social Security.
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