Nancy J. Altman

Donald Trump's existential threat to Social Security should be disqualifying

Social Security shouldn't be a partisan issue. In poll after poll, voters of all political views overwhelmingly agree that Social Security is more important than ever, should not be cut, and indeed should be expanded. But that is not the belief of those in charge of today's Republican Party.

Despite the bipartisan support for Social Security among the electorate, Donald Trump, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and their Republican colleagues and donors have a different agenda. Only a careful monitoring of their actions and words, however, reveals the truth, because they work hard to keep that agenda as hidden as possible.

Remarkably, in 2016, Donald Trump ran as "the only Republican that doesn't want to cut Social Security." His posturing as a Social Security champion helped him win the Republican primary and the White House.

But his record, both before running for President and once he took office, shows that the reality doesn't match the rhetoric. Trump is just as hostile to Social Security as McConnell and the other Republican politicians he accurately accused of wanting to cut Social Security.

Revealingly, years before running for office, Trump wrote a book with a chapter on Social Security in which he slandered Social Security as a criminal "Ponzi scheme." He declared his support for privatizing it. He advocated raising the retirement age to 70, sneeringly posing the question, with all the confidence of a billionaire who has never worked a day's hard labor in his life, "How many times will you really want to take that trailer to the Grand Canyon?"

Trump's White House record reflects the attitude towards Social Security he showed in that book. Every single one of Trump's yearly budget proposals has included billions in cuts to Social Security. His closest advisors, including Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and first OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, have long histories of opposition to Social Security. His just confirmed Supreme Court appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, refuses to say if she believes that Social Security is constitutional.

If Trump remains in office, Social Security is in serious danger. This January, Trump told a roomful of billionaires that he planned to target Social Security and Medicare for cuts in his second term. He reiterated that promise in March.

Trump has not only revealed that he will gut our earned Social Security benefits if he is reelected. He has told us how he will do it.

Since his first year in office, Trump has been obsessed with cutting payroll contributions, Social Security's dedicated revenue. This year, he's used the pandemic as an excuse to further that goal. In August, Trump issued an unprecedented unilateral executive action deferring the collection of payroll "taxes" — the premiums workers pay for Social Security's wage insurance. When announcing his action, he promised to permanently "terminate" payroll contributions if he wins a second term.

While some have reported that Trump would need Congressional support to carry out this promise, that isn't true. Using the dangerous precedent he created with his executive action, a second term Trump could continue issuing additional deferrals, using the COVID-19 emergency as his excuse.

That would be catastrophic. Social Security's chief actuary has found that without the revenue from payroll contributions, Social Security's disability insurance benefits would cease by the middle of 2021. All Social Security benefits would cease in 2023. In other words, Trump has the power to destroy Social Security by the end of his second term — and he intends to use his power. At the least, his power to destroy this vital institution will give him enormous leverage to get Congress to do whatever he wants.

Fortunately, Americans have the chance to stop him at the voting booth. Polling shows that seniors, furious at Trump's attacks on our earned Social Security benefits as well as his failure to contain COVID-19, are voting more Democratic than they have in decades. If Trump loses, his betrayal of his promise to protect Social Security will be a big reason why, and he knows it.

Trump is now trying to win back seniors by muddying the waters about which candidate is the real supporter of Social Security. But no one should be fooled.

If he stays in power, Trump will defund and destroy Social Security. Joe Biden, on the other hand, is running on a platform of protecting and expanding Social Security—and paying for it by finally requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share.

In the wise words of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT): "There's only one presidential candidate who is endangering Social Security, Donald Trump. Trump's plan to defund Social Security by eliminating the payroll tax would bankrupt it in four years—an absolute disaster for seniors and people with disabilities."

The contrast between the two parties on Social Security has never been clearer. Every working family that has contributed to Social Security has a stake in this fight. All of us should vote accordingly.

Trump really does have a plan to destroy Social Security

Donald Trump’s nonstop lies, together with his endless cries of “fake news” and “hoax,” make the role of media fact checkers more important than ever. Unfortunately, on the crucial issue of Social Security, too many of them are furiously defending Trump from his own words.

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Trump is a brazen liar about Social Security

In his State of the Union address, Donald Trump claimed that “we will always protect your Social Security.” But just two weeks ago, Trump said just the opposite. He was in Davos, hobnobbing with Wall Street billionaires. While there, he sat for an interview with CNBC’s Joe Kernen, who asked him if “entitlements” would “ever be on your plate.”

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You might be surprised at how far Americans are willing to go to overthrow the power of Big Pharma

As the 2020 election looms, “Morning Joe” pundits love to talk about “electability.” The out-of-touch television personalities chide the left for advocating policies they perceive as unpopular with the electorate. Yet, “electability” appears differently to primary voters, who increasingly see progressive politicians as prepared to beat Trump. The message that Democrats need to return to is an age-old one: rich, powerful interests are ripping us off, and it’s time to fight back.

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Republicans want to cut Social Security 'behind closed doors'

Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) just said out loud what Republican politicians usually only talk about in secret meetings with their billionaire donors: The GOP wants to cut our earned Social Security benefits—and they want to do it behind closed doors so that they don’t have to pay the political price.

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Intergenerational warfare is a scam

President Franklin Roosevelt famously remarked about attacks on Social Security, “It is an old strategy of tyrants to delude their victims into fighting their battles for them.” We can see that strategy at work today.

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Trump's insidious plan to derail Social Security — and avoid a massive 2020 backlash

Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal included billions of dollars in Social Security cuts. The proposed cuts were a huge betrayal of his campaign promise to protect our Social Security system. Fortunately for Social Security’s current and future beneficiaries, he has little chance of getting these cuts past the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats.

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The remarkable Mothers of Social Security

This Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the remarkable Mothers of Social Security. Without them, this essential program may never have been born. It certainly would be much less successful and effective.

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Trump’s budget director reveals plans to attack Social Security and Medicare

Opponents of Social Security and Medicare are so eager to end these two overwhelmingly important and popular earned benefits that they can’t contain themselves. Mick Mulvaney, the Trump administration’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, is the latest to make crystal clear the longstanding plan to destroy both programs.

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I Used to Work for Republicans - Now I Fear What They'll Do If They Win in November

Everyone who cares about their Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid needs to vote on November 6. If Republican politicians and the donors who own them retain full control of Congress, they are determined to finally succeed in their longstanding goal of ending all three programs.

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Seniors Are Getting Slowly Strangled by Social Security’s Flawed Math - Here’s How to Fix It

As a result of inflation, people on fixed incomes find that their incomes decline in value over time. One extremely important feature of Social Security is that its benefits are adjusted every year automatically to offset increases in inflation so that the modest, but vital, benefits do not erode over time. It is important to understand that these adjustments are not increases. They are intended to simply allow people to tread water, to maintain their purchasing power.

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Medicare for All is Achievable, Despite What Hillary Clinton Says on 2016 Campaign Trail

Hillary Clinton is wrong when she says that Medicare for all is not achievable. In fact, if she and her husband had embraced the concept in 1993, we would be nearly there today.

Medicare was supposed to be a first step toward Medicare for all. After activists tried and failed to include universal health care in the Social Security Act of 1935, and after President Harry Truman tried during his presidency to achieve that goal, supporters decided that an incremental approach was most likely to bring ultimate success.

So activists decided to fight to cover seniors, as a first step. They achieved that goal with the enactment of Medicare in 1965. In 1972, Medicare was expanded to cover people with disabilities. But that is where progress stopped.

In 1993, the electorate wanted better health care. The newly elected President Bill Clinton put Hillary Clinton in charge of a task force to develop a proposal. They created a Rube Goldberg machine, easily attacked by the health care industry because the proposal was so hard to understand. If instead, the Clinton administration had further built on the extremely successful and popular Medicare program, then nearly three decades old, they would likely have been successful. There was a strong case to be made (as there still is) to lower the Medicare age of eligibility from age 65 to age 62, when seniors are first eligible for Social Security benefits.

Lowering the Medicare age to 62 or even 55 would have benefited Medicare, where the risk pool would be expanded to include younger, healthier seniors, as well as private health care insurance, where those same people - who, in private insurance, are the oldest and sickest -- would have been shifted out. The Clintons could have also proposed to add to Medicare, a Medikids piece -- universal coverage of all children. That was considered in 1965 by strategists seeking to take a first step toward government-provided health care, and continues, polls show, to be popular. The health care industry would, of course, have opposed the expansion. But an energized and united electorate, mobilized by a committed administration, could have overcome it. That is what happened in 1965, with the enactment of Medicare, when the medical industry tried as hard as it could to defeat it.

Those two expansions -- lowering the Medicare age and adding children -- would have been easy to explain and popular. They constitute excellent policy, and would have been easily understood by the electorate. A newly-elected Clinton administration, laser-focused on an incremental expansion of Medicare, would have had an excellent chance of success. President Obama could have built on that success, proposing lowering the Medicare age further, raising the Medikids age, and allowing those with pre-existing conditions and others to buy into Medicare at a reasonable price. Eventually, more and more people would have opted in, getting us ever closer to the goal of Medicare for All.

This strategy is still likely to work. It is completely compatible with Obamacare. Medicare is popular among conservatives and liberals alike. Many seniors, who have been a growing part of the Republican base, are hanging on until they reach their 65th birthdays. A Medicare expansion, polls show, is overwhelmingly popular, just as Social Security expansion is. As part of the expansion effort, a new push for a public option, in the form of a Medicare buy-in, would help reach the ultimate goal.

An incremental approach only works if one has a vision of where the incremental steps are leading. In a campaign, candidates present the ultimate goals, not a blueprint for incremental change. But to attack the ultimate goal as unrealistic, when incremental steps can get you there, is a disservice. It is a disservice to all of the millions of Americans who believe that high quality, affordable health care should be a right, not a privilege. It is a disservice to all those who want a more efficient health care system in order to have resources to spend on other pressing domestic needs. It is a disservice to those who see that a more efficient health care system will allow more compensation to be paid in the form of cash wages, as opposed to health insurance.

Claiming that such a noble, important and popular goal -- Medicare for all -- is unrealistic does not show pragmatism. Rather, it shows a lack of imagination.

America Can Afford To Increase Social Security, Despite What The Washington Post Says

"It's simple math," is the refrain often uttered by those seeking to explain why cutting, not expanding, Social Security is the choice to make. A variation of that phrase, "arithmetical realities of an aging society," appeared in Fred Hiatt's recent opinion piece ("Never-Compromise Wins Again," Washington Post, 3/23/15). The math is simple, but Mr. Hiatt gets it wrong.

In an effort to show that Social Security will be unaffordable in the future, Mr. Hiatt points out the misleading fact that there used to be a larger number of workers, in comparison to Social Security beneficiaries, than there are now, and there will be an even smaller number in the future. But this "simple math" leaves an important variable out of the equation: productivity. The worker to beneficiary ratio doesn't prove unaffordability any more than affordability is proven from the equally true observation that the total dependency ratio (workers compared to seniors and children) was much higher in the 1950s and 1960s than it is now or will be through most of the 21st century.

The appropriate measure to assess affordability, one that takes into account productivity, is the percentage of our Gross Domestic Product--the total value of all goods and services--represented by Social Security. Currently, Social Security represents about five percent of GDP. In the future, at its most expensive, it will represent about 6.2 percent. Many other industrialized countries spend a much higher percentage of their GDP on their counterpart programs right now than we will at Social Security's most expensive. Compared to that 6.2 percent of GDP, for example, Austria today spends 11.9 percent, Germany, 10.7 percent, and Japan, 9.8 percent.

The question of whether Social Security should be expanded, fully funded at its current level of scheduled benefits, or scaled back is not one of math or demographics, but one of values- how we choose to spend our combined wealth. Confusing this question is some other wrong math.

Like one of those fifth grade math word problems involving percentages of pies, advocates of cutting Social Security portray federal expenditures as a pie, and then complain that too much of it is going to seniors. What is missed in this analysis is that there are two pies. One pie is Social Security- disability insurance, life insurance, and joint and survivor annuities financed from its own dedicated revenue paid primarily by insured workers and their employers. That pie cannot borrow or deficit-spend. The other pie is the general operating fund of the United States, financed primarily through the federal income tax.

Past Congresses have tried to make it as clear as possible that there are two pies, going so far as to enact Public Law 101-508, which unambiguously states that Social Security "shall not be counted...for purposes of...the budget of the United States Government." While the federal budget has a large deficit, Social Security has a large and growing accumulated surplus. Cutting its benefits would shrink the Social Security pie, but not increase the general-fund pie.

Mr. Hiatt and others are missing other important math. Social Security benefits average just $14,600 in 2015. That math is the one that too many Americans are scribbling on the back of envelopes, or neatly entering in Excel spreadsheets. It is the math of hard choices - do I pay for my medications this month, or buy groceries? Forgo heat or pay my phone bill?

These are not questions that people should have to ask themselves when they live in the wealthiest country in the world, at the richest time in our history.

Mr. Hiatt and others imply that cuts would affect only the wealthiest beneficiaries, but that math doesn't work. There has not been a single serious proposal to cut Social Security that is so limited. The Bowles-Simpson proposal supported by Social Security opponents would cut benefits of workers earning around $40,000 by almost twenty percent, according to Social Security's Chief Actuary. Those earning more would see their benefits cut by higher percentages; even workers earning just $11,000 would see substantial cuts.

Social Security Works proudly stands by our opposition to cutting even a single penny from our earned Social Security benefits. The American people agree with us;according to the National Academy of Social Insurance, "71% of respondents would prefer a package of changes that increases Social Security revenues, pays for benefit improvements, and eliminates the projected financing gap."

Now is the time to expand our Social Security system. It is deeply popular, and it is profoundly wise policy. It's simple math.

Expanding Social Security Is the Cheapest Way to Bring More Security to America's Retirees

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a new book, “Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All,” published by The New Press, 2015, all rights reserved. Order a copy here.) 

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GOP's New House Rules Set Stage For Social Security Cuts

Republican opponents of Social Security have not wasted even a single day in their plan to dismantle Social Security brick by brick. What should be a dry, mundane exercise -- the adoption of new rules by the newly convening House of Representatives -- has turned into a stealth attack on America's working families.

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How Congress Has Already Cut Your Social Security Benefits

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a new book, “Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All,” published by The New Press, 2015, all rights reserved. Order a copy here.) 

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America’s Retirement Security Crisis Is Huge and Quickly Approaching

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a new book, “Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All,” published by The New Press, 2015, all rights reserved. Order a copy here.) 

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5 Most Economically Vulnerable Groups of Aging Americans Who Need Social Security

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a new book, “Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All,” published by The New Press, 2015, all rights reserved. Order a copy here.) 

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Stop the False War of Words on Seniors Who Need Social Security

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a new book, “Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All,” published by The New Press, 2015, all rights reserved. Order a copy here.) 

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New York Times Columnist Peter Orszag Joins the Social Security Fearmongering Crowd

Tuesday's election gave expression to a deep frustration that Washington is not listening to Main Street. This frustration seems reasonable after reading the tin-eared response to the elections penned by former OMB Director Peter Orszag, in his recent opinion piece with its fear-mongering title, "Saving Social Security."

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Obama's Crazy Plan To Cut Social Security

President Obama and the leadership in Congress have delegated enormous, unaccountable authority to 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals. The 18 individuals are meeting regularly, in secret, behind closed doors, until safely beyond this year’s mid-term election. If they reach agreement, their proposal will be voted on in December by a lame duck Congress, without the benefit of open hearings and deliberations in the pertinent committees and without the opportunity for open debate and amendment on the floors of the House and Senate. Despite the speed and lack of accountability, the legislation will affect, in substantial ways, every man, woman, and child in this nation.

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What's Next for Social Security?

It was just over one year ago that President Bush, fresh from his re-election victory, announced that substituting private accounts for a part of Social Security's guarantee would be a top priority of his second term. In so stating, President Bush broke ranks with every former president, Republican and Democratic alike. All had understood the value and importance of Social Security.

Even President Bush's own father said in his 1990 State of the Union address, "To every American out there on Social Security, to every American supporting that system today, and to everyone counting on it when they retire, we made a promise to you, and we are going to keep it the last thing we need to do is mess around with Social Security."

The current president spent much of 2005 warning that "the crisis is now" for Social Security. His headline-grabbing, alarmist rhetoric stirred up a great deal of anxiety but no concrete action. President Bush's Social Security proposal appears dead, at least for now.

But the president has made clear that he is not giving up.

As recently as Tuesday, Jan. 23, President Bush said, "Last year I talked about doing something about [Social Security], and the Congress didn't do anything about it. So this year I'm going to talk about doing something about it, and the next year something about it, and the next year something about it."

Moreover, Social Security does have a projected long-range deficit which has not yet been addressed. What will happen next? What should happen?

President Bush has argued that Social Security is a Depression-era program that is out of date, fundamentally flawed and in need of modernization. The truth is that Social Security was enacted during the Depression, but it was not made for the Depression.

In order to give workers time to become insured, the Social Security Act of 1935, which created the program, provided that monthly benefits would not begin for seven years after the 1935 enactment -- until Jan. 1, 1942, a date more than 12 years after the stock market crash of 1929.

President Roosevelt recognized that to get immediate assistance to people in need -- to alleviate the immediate suffering caused by the Depression -- there was no alternative to means tested welfare, and so Congress enacted that as well. But for the long term -- once the Depression was history and the economic health of the country was restored -- the president wanted a system of insurance in place to guarantee for posterity that every American would have a reliable, stable source of income to replace wages once workers became too old to continue to work. (It has since been expanded to replace wages lost as a result of death or disability.) The idea was to keep middle-income workers from falling into poverty once wages were no longer there.

President Roosevelt's vision is as relevant and important today as it was then: As long as people are dependent on wages, Social Security is necessary. As Sept. 11 so starkly demonstrated, tragedy can hit anyone at any time. Today, the 9/11 families receive monthly Social Security benefits, which replace the wages of their loved ones who perished. Social Security is in place so that American workers and their families for all time will have a reliable, stable source of income to replace wages in the event of death or disability.

Moreover, in a world where the private pension system is in trouble, where major companies like IBM are freezing or terminating their plans and where savings are at their lowest rate since the 1930's, Social Security's rock-solid guarantee of a floor of protection in retirement is more necessary than ever. What about the claim that Social Security is unsustainable, as President Bush has argued? President Bush claims, every time he talks about the subject, that Social Security is a victim of the aging baby boom, reflected in the ratio of workers to retirees, which used to be 16 to 1, is now 3 to 1, and in 2030, will be 2 to 1.

The truth is that today's projected deficit has nothing to do with the size of the baby boom or worker-to-retiree ratios. The 16 to 1 ratio is a meaningless factoid plucked from 1950, a year when Social Security was expanded to cover millions of new workers. The ratio never influenced policy in the slightest. It is the kind of ratio experienced by all pension plans, public and private, at the start when few workers have yet qualified for benefits.

The 3 to 1 ratio has been the case for the last three decades or more. The future 2 to 1 ratio is meaningful and does translate into higher costs, but those costs were addressed decades ago. Congress has enacted 10 significant Social Security bills since 1950. Every enactment has taken into account the baby boom, and each has left the program in long-run actuarial balance. The most recent enactment was in 1983, when the program was in balance through 2057 -- the year the youngest boomers, those born in 1964, will turn 93.

How social security went from a projected surplus through 2057, when most of the baby boom will be dead, to today's projected deficit involves a number of factors, mainly related to changes in assumptions about wage growth, productivity and disability rates. The change from surplus to deficit is totally unrelated to the number of baby boomers, as one would surmise. After all, no new baby boomers have been born since 1983.

Although President Bush tries to scare people about the future, in reality, Social Security's projected shortfall several decades away is one of the easiest problems facing the nation. The solution simply requires balancing income and outgo for the long run, and there are several ways to achieve that balance. I favor three changes -- gradually restoring the maximum taxable wage base to where it was historically, covering 90 percent of all wages; converting the residual estate tax to a dedicated Social Security tax; and diversifying Social Security's investment portfolio, so that it is invested in stocks as well as bonds.

All of these are good policy in their own right and, together, solve the deficit. They involve no benefit cuts, no increase in the payroll tax rate, and, for that matter, no increase in taxes at all for about 94 percent of all American workers. The real issue for Social Security is one of politics and perception, not economics and the aging population. It is imperative that, in 2006, Americans elect political leaders who are committed to Social Security. An understanding of the history of Social Security makes clear that despite President Bush's rhetoric about strengthening Social Security, his proposal is simply the latest battle in a longstanding ideological war -- one that has raged for 70 years -- between supporters and opponents of the vital American institution.

Now is the time to get those running for Congress on the record: before the election. All politicians will claim they are for Social Security, but a few simple questions will determine whether they are telling the truth. Ask whether they are for or against private accounts and other radical transformations of this vital American institution, whether they will fight proposals to cut benefits, and whether they support Social Security's basic philosophy and structure, which have been a part of the program since its beginning.

The opponents of Social Security are on the ropes. For the sake of the country, it is time to deliver the knock-out punch next November and finish the fight.