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Can Right-Wingers and Plutocrats Be Stopped from Destroying Social Security?

There's momentum in the fight to strengthen, instead of gut, social security.

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A new effort to build bipartisan consensus on fortifying Social Security was unveiled in Washington on Friday that shows the promise and perils of the evolving debate on the how tens of millions of aging Americans will support themselves in coming years.

On the promising side, an extensive public engagement process by a new centrist group, the Program for Public Consultation (PCP), found vast bipartisan agreement to strengthen Social Security now through progressive tax increases and even increasing some benefits. On the perilous side, the starting line for its discussion is the tedious rightwing drumbeat about revenue shortfalls two decades from now, which distract from focusing on today’s retirement security crisis and what steps can address more immediate human needs.

“They did not brief respondents on the retirement crisis or ask them if they had saved enough for retirement,” said an analyst with one of the more progressive reform groups, who attended the PCP briefing but commented on background. “So respondents were tasked with the narrow job of eliminating the shortfall, rather than devising the best Social Security policy.”

After several decades where the political debate on Social Security has been dominated by right-wingers who want to either eliminate, privatize or cut it, there’s new momentum in Washington to step back and starting discussing how Social Security can be fixed for today’s recipients and Americans who will soon retire. Like all political debates, how the problem is defined has a lot to do with what solutions are offered.

What’s needed now, the analyst said, was “a discussion of people and their retirement insecurity—especially Generation Xers and millenials. Those advocating cutting Social Security say it is to protect our children and grandchildren, yet they will need it even more than today’s retirees do.” 

The Program for Public Consultation is a relatively new group whose board is made up of a dozen former Democratic and Republican congressmen, and another two-dozen experts who wear many hats as policy centrists in Washington. Their foundation-funded initiative is noteworthy not only because it will be repeated in congressional districts in 2014, but because its early findings support taking specific steps now that progressives have been touting for years—and for which there is huge public support to do so.  

For example, after holding workshops last July where 738 people took part, PCP polled participants and found that 76 percent backed the most progressive revenue solution: eliminating the little-known cap on taxable income that funds Social Security. People only pay taxes on the first $117,000 of their income, not investments, for the social insurance program. That step alone would eliminate the projected shortfall two decades from now and generate a surplus funds to expand current benefits by one-sixth, PCP Director Seven Kull said at the press briefing.

PCP also found strong support, 72 percent, to increase the minimum monthly benefit for retirees—which, at $760, is below the federal poverty line. And it found that 73 percent also favored increasing benefits once people reach age 80. The majority, 59 percent, also supported reducing Social Security payments to wealthy Americans who didn’t need it. Those poll results reflect sizeable majorities to act now to expand the program.      

But on the perilous side, the starting line for PCP’s exercise reflects the conservative bias that elevates concern about projected finances in 2033 above whether today’s benefits are enough, let alone in two decades. PCP mostly frames the challenge as ensuring retirees do not see a 23 percent cut in benefits in 19 years due to inadequate income tax revenue. Anti-tax Republicans and Wall Street financiers have cited those projections to call for cuts now, or political compromises that will not ensure that tens of millions of people age with dignity and stay out of poverty—why it was created in the 1930s.