As a doctor, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the Social Security 2100 Act, sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and co-sponsored by 210 House Democrats. This legislation will go a long way toward preserving and improving public health.
Under current law, Social Security benefits will be automatically cut by 20 percent in 2035. That would be disastrous for seniors, for Americans with disabilities, and for children. It would make it even harder for my patients to afford the medications I prescribe and buy the nutritious food they need to stay healthy.
The Social Security 2100 Act keeps Social Security strong through the end of the 21st century and beyond, ensuring that no cuts take place. In fact, it goes even further, increasing benefits for every Social Security beneficiary. The legislation also boosts the minimum benefit so no one is forced to retire into poverty, and it fixes the formula for yearly cost-of-living adjustments to reflect the real expenses beneficiaries face.
All of this would be enormously consequential for public health. Poverty makes people sicker, in both subtle and unsubtle ways. A 2015 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Impact of Social Security Income on Cognitive Function at Older Ages,” provides valuable insight into the role that Social Security plays in maintaining health. In the study, Professors Padmaja Ayyagari and David Frisvold of the University of Iowa found “robust evidence that higher Social Security income improves cognitive function among the elderly.” This was the case even when the benefit increases were quite modest.
These findings have potentially life-changing implications for families across the country. Nearly six million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s. Women, African-Americans, and Latinx-Americans are hit particularly hard. Alzheimer’s is a disease that impacts the entire family. In 2018 alone, family and friends provided 18.5 billion hours of unpaid care to people with dementia. If that labor was paid, it would be valued at approximately $234 billion.
Alzheimer’s is a major factor in our nation’s rising health care costs, as well. By 2050, the yearly costs of Alzheimer’s (much of which is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid) are projected to rise to $1.1 trillion.
All of this means that if the Social Security 2100 Act’s increase in Social Security benefits (and prevention of a 20 percent benefit cut) leads to even a modest decrease in Alzheimer’s cases, the bill will pay for itself. Not just in terms of dollar figures, but also in more important ways: allowing people to keep their precious memories, and family members to have more years sharing those memories with their loved ones.
The Social Security 2100 Act would have important public health benefits for other groups, as well. Social Security is best known as a retirement program, but it also includes additional protections. When workers pay into Social Security, they are earning valuable disability and life insurance. Over ten million Americans receive Social Security disability benefits, and nearly six million receive Social Security survivor benefits due to the death of a breadwinning spouse or parent.
Thanks to the program’s disability and survivor benefits, as well as the rise of “grandfamilies,” Social Security is the nation’s largest children’s program. Over six million children benefit from Social Security, either directly or by living in households where a parent or grandparent receives Social Security.
As a pediatrician, I can attest to the enormous role economic insecurity plays in hurting children’s health. Without Social Security, the poverty rate of children who live in families that receive benefits would increase by over 17 percent.
If Social Security’s benefits were cut by 20 percent, it would be catastrophic for many of my patients and their families. By preventing that cut and instead increasing benefits, the Social Security 2100 Act would make it easier for my patients to get a healthy start in life.
That’s why I’m disgusted by the tactics Republicans are using to propagandize against the bill. They claim that it will hurt millennials, and the younger generation my patients belong to, when exactly the opposite is true.
Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, calculated that under the Social Security 2100 Act, someone turning 29 today would pay about $15,000 more (compared to current law) toward Social Security during their entire career, as would their employer. In return, they’ll get over $80,000 more in retirement benefits than they would without the bill—and that’s if they retire at 66 without ever needing Social Security’s disability or survivor benefits.
When you factor in the public health benefits, including the peace of mind that will be granted by restoring public confidence in Social Security, the Republican claims are even more absurd. The truth is that, as Rep. Larson recently wrote, the Republicans have no plan of their own—except to let the 20 percent benefit cut take place.
To date, not a single Republican has co-sponsored the Social Security 2100 Act. Perhaps it’s because strengthening and expanding a popular government program is at odds with their anti-government ideology. Perhaps it’s because the bill makes the wealthy pay into Social Security at the same rate as the rest of us, by phasing out the cap on contributions that currently kicks in after the first $132,900 of income.
Whatever their reasons, the Republicans should be honest about them. Instead, they are using young people like my patients as shields and doing a disservice to public health.
Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram is the host of “Dr. America,” an innovative podcast about public policy and health justice on We Act Radio. He also writes about connections between health policy, inequity, and social determinants of health. Dr. Sriram completed his medical degree and his pediatrics residency at UCLA, where he served as Chief Resident at the Department of Pediatrics. In June 2009, he earned his Master’s in Public Health after completing the Commonwealth Fund Mongan Fellowship in Minority Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. He currently practices general pediatrics in southeast Washington, D.C.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.