While those who lead the charge in advocating cuts to Social Security’s benefits programs, including Social Security disability benefits, insist that cutting these programs will help balance the budget, others disagree. Intent on preserving the system, Social Security advocates say that proposed cuts to the system will have little or no effect on the budget or the deficit.
Targeting the National Commission on Financial Responsibility, which has been given the task of finding ways to balance our national budget and cut the nation’s trillion dollar deficit, Merton C. Bernstein, LLB, a nationally recognized expert on Social Security, spoke out on October 8 against the cuts. Quoted on the Washington University of St. Louis website, Bernstein said, “They are ignoring Social Security’s strong foundation and track record. Cutting the program will lead to undiminished deficits, more poverty, less purchasing power, less business income and more unemployment.”
Bernstein insisted that Social Security:
- Pays its own way
- Pays benefits only to those “entitled” to benefits through meeting work and contribution requirements
- Insures families against loss of income due to a wage earner’s unexpected death or disability
- Reduces poverty among seniors; and
- Generates billions of dollars in purchasing power.
Paul N. Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities with 25 years experience at the Social Security Administration and Congressional Budget Office, was quoted in the Daily Kos as saying, “The Social Security trustees…project that Social Security can pay 100% of promised benefits through 2037 and about three-quarters of scheduled benefits after that, even if Congress makes no changes in the program. Relatively modest changes would put the program on a sound financial footing for 75 years and beyond.”
Members of the commission are not convinced, however. Alice Rivlin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the deficit commission, was quoted in a recent article in the Washington Independent as saying, "Social Security is not in immediate trouble. There's been a lot of exaggeration of that problem. It is not on a solid basis for the long run, however. The sooner we act, the less we have to do."
The solution heard most often is that of raising the retirement age. However, it has been argued that this move will impact low income workers disproportionately, since they are more likely to work in more physically demanding jobs that they cannot continue to work at in their 60s, much less their 70s. Likewise, those with disabilities will be more likely to have to retire and may need to draw SSI, SSDI, or childhood disability benefits at an earlier age. This argument doesn’t even address the needs of children and young adults needing lifelong Social Security disability benefits.
Other plans to fix the system mentioned in the Washington Independent article include changing the way benefits are calculated, reducing benefits for wealthy Americans, increasing the agency’s revenues by increasing the payroll cap (currently set at $106,800), either by eliminating it entirely or by raising it to 90% of earnings, or increasing the tax rate by a small fraction.
Basically conservatives lean toward raising the retirement age and cutting benefits, while liberals lean toward increasing revenues by increasing the payroll cap or increasing the taxes that fund the system.
With all the talk of money, one wonders where the human factor has gone. The system was set up to decrease the very real threat of human misery that flourished during the Great Depression. Before Social Security, people had a much greater chance of living in poverty in their old age or if they became disabled. Even now, Social Security, whether in the form of retirement benefits, survivors’ benefits, disability benefits, or health benefits, keeps a large number of people from destitution. Surely this is the real value of the system and surely it is worth putting aside politics to ensure that the most vulnerable among lead lives of dignity.