The Social Security Board of Trustees has just released its annual report to Congress. It puts the lie to the claim that Social Security is unaffordable. Rather, the just-released report reveals that even a greatly expanded Social Security is fully affordable.
According to the new report, Social Security has a large and growing surplus. The program is 100 percent funded for the next 17 years. It is 93 percent funded for the next 25 years. The projected shortfall over the next three-quarters of a century amounts to just 0.9 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In contrast, military spending after the 9/11 terrorist attack increased 1.1 percent of GDP virtually overnight. Spending on public education nationwide went up 2.8 percent of GDP between 1950 and 1975, when the baby boom generation showed up as school children.
Last year, Social Security cost just 5 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At its most expensive, at the end of the 21st century, the cost is projected to be just 6.17 percent of GDP. That is considerably less, as a percentage of GDP, than Germany, France, Japan, Austria and most other industrialized countries spend on their counterpart programs today.
This low percentage of GDP is not surprising, given how inadequately low Social Security’s benefits are and how extremely efficient the program is. Social Security’s benefits are modest by virtually any measure. Moreover, less than a penny of every dollar spent goes to administration. More than 99 cents of every dollar is spent on benefits.
Expanding Social Security would help everyone. It is a solution to a number of challenges facing the nation. We face a looming retirement income crisis where most workers will be unable to retire without a drastic reduction in their standards of living. Social Security is the most universal, secure, fair, and efficient source of retirement income that we have, providing a guaranteed, inflation-protected source of income that one will never outlive. Expanding Social Security is a common-sense solution to that looming crisis.
Increasing retirement benefits automatically increases disability and survivor benefits, because they are derived from the same benefit formula. Those benefits can and should be increased for current beneficiaries, as well as all future beneficiaries. Expanding Social Security would help ease the financial pressure on working families. Adding new benefit protections, such as paid family leave and paid sick days, would do even more.
Expanding Social Security is a solution to other challenges, as well. Americans are rightly concerned about growing income and wealth inequality. Expanding Social Security and requiring millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share will begin to put brakes on this dangerous, and rapidly growing, upward redistribution of wealth.
The just-released trustees report makes clear that, despite what opponents would have us believe, the question of whether to expand or cut Social Security is a matter of values. The fact is that, as the richest nation in the world at the richest point in our history, not only can we afford the current levels of Social Security protections, we can afford to greatly expand Social Security.
As divided as the American people are over many issues, we are not divided about our deep support for Social Security. Support for Social Security expansion, and opposition to benefit reductions, cuts across ideological divides. These views are shared by Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. They are held by self-identified Tea Partiers and union households. A Pew poll conducted during last year’s presidential primaries discovered that supporters of every candidate running overwhelmingly oppose Social Security cuts. Our Social Security system is so popular that it unites Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz supporters!
The Democratic Party has recognized the importance of expanding Social Security benefits. The 2016 Democratic platform stated:
We will fight every effort to cut, privatize, or weaken Social Security, including attempts to raise the retirement age, diminish benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments, or reducing earned benefits. Democrats will expand Social Security.
Consistent with that pledge, nearly 20 Social Security expansion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate just since 2015. Indeed, the Social Security 2100 Act, recently introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT-01), has 162 cosponsors in the House of Representatives— around 85 percent of all Democratic representatives. Similarly, around 90 percent of Senate Democrats are on record in favor of expanding, not cutting Social Security.
In sharp contrast, no Republican policymaker has advocated expanding, not cutting, Social Security. Even Donald Trump, who ran on but quickly betrayed a promise to protect Social Security, has always been opposed to expansion. During the primary, he referred to expanding Social Security benefits as “what we’re up against.”
Unlike the Democratic Party and voters of all political parties, the Republican Party supports cutting Social Security. In the last Congress, all but six Republican senators voted against protecting current workers - even those within days of retirement - from Social Security benefit cuts, including increases in Social Security’s retirement age. Moreover, Republican leaders have a clear history of advocating deep cuts to Social Security or even radically transforming it. And despite his repeated campaign promises to the contrary, Donald Trump’s budget proposes Social Security cuts.
Understanding how unpopular their position, though, Republicans seek to hide the fact that cutting Social Security is a choice, plain and simple. Rather, they spread the lie that Social Security is part of an unaffordable “entitlement crisis.” They never acknowledge that Social Security is an earned benefit. They never acknowledge that the issue is rising drug prices, including rising health care costs in the private sector, not Medicare and Medicaid. In short, they distort the truth to hide what they truly believe.
Don’t be fooled by those who claim they want to “save” Social Security” from a fictitious “entitlement crisis.” They argue that, because they lose, if the issue of whether to expand or cut Social Security were debated, honestly, in terms of values.
Occasionally, though, the truth comes out. When President George W. Bush proposed to privatize Social Security, a memorandum from his director of strategic initiatives, dated January 3, 2005, and marked “not for attribution,” asserted that the effort to privatize Social Security “will be one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times.” The confidential memorandum concluded, “For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win.”
Consistent with that honest disclosure, radicals, outside the mainstream, have wanted to end Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid since their enactments. Those radicals now control the Republican agenda.
Right now, the GOP is focused on destroying Medicaid, by dishonestly including it in the legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They have already made clear their desire to end Medicare. And, despite Donald Trump’s repeated claims to not cut Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security, his own budget proposes deep cuts in Social Security.
If Republican elites get their way, they will destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and pass enormous tax giveaways to the super rich. But if their constituents can stop them and if those who care about these issues vote for candidates who favor no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, but expansions, paid for by requiring the wealthiest to pay their fair share, we will all win.
A much more adequate Social Security and an expanded Medicare, backed up by a strong Medicaid, will increase all of our economic security. The just-released trustees report makes clear: the choice is ours.