What motivates a 69 year old professor of social work and co- founder of a successful national organization, Social Security Works* and coalition, the Strengthen Social Security Coalition,** to make his first run for elective office to serve as Representative of New York's 24th Congressional District?
No question, I want to keep fighting powerful interest groups advocating cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, when the average benefit of today's retirees is just $16,000, and when these benefits need to be expanded, not cut. I want to continue the work of blocking cuts and laying the foundation for expanding Social Security as an instrument of social justice, something Nancy Altman and I wrote about in our recent book Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All (The New Press, 2015). But there is more...
Like a lot of us, I am fed up with political leaders whose allegiance is first and foremost to themselves and their campaign contributors. I share outrage that most Washington politicians seem more interested in advancing the next tax-giveaway to special interests and the very rich than investing in infrastructure, jobs, alternative energy and environmental threats to our children's, grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's futures. I share the concerns of many that the extremists in control of Congress today stand in opposition to efforts to advance racial justice and reproductive rights, and to address unemployment, poverty, education, student and consumer debt, and so many other issues central to maintaining a civil society. That our nation's leaders were so willing to see weapons of mass destruction where none existed, but not address the extraordinary inequality of income wealth and power that threatens our future, or fully honor veterans and their families who served our nation... That we talk about the importance of the family but do not support the care provided by family members and low-wage caregivers...
Our economy is not working for the middle class, low-wage workers, the poor and young people just starting out. The Economic Policy Institute reports that in the 1960s when our economy was booming, CEO's in the top 350 U.S. companies earned 20 times as much as the typical American worker. Today they earn about 300 times as much! Once our most profitable corporations paid their fair share and invested their profits in growing the American economy. Today, many move their profits off-shore to avoid taxation, cut their workforces to make more profit, and squander these profits on huge bonuses for their executives while giving precious little to their employees.
But it doesn't have to be this way. We remain a rich nation. We have the resources, the people and ability to address these issues and more. This is not a matter of economic possibility, but of whether we can summon the moral and political will to invest in an America that works for everyone, that embraces its diversity and the talents of every person.
Take the nation's retirement income crisis. Many people in their late forties, 50s and 60s-- maybe you or others among your families, friends and coworkers-- are scared about their retirement. Today's workers face a looming retirement income crisis. In 2013 52% of households were on a glide path to being unable to maintain their standard of living during their retirement years, even if they work until age 66, presumably as much as 2/3rds if health and long-term-care expenses are included in this risk assessment. No surprise then that the Pension Rights Center reports a $7.7 trillion (yes the "T" word) "gap between what American households have actually saved today and what they should have saved today to maintain their living standards in retirement."
Further, as many of you know from first-hand experience, today's Social Security retirees are not living "high on the hog." While some are wealthy, many more live in poverty or near the margins of economic sufficiency. Using 200% of the Census Bureau's New Supplemental Poverty Measure as the standard for income sufficiency, nearly half (48%) are economically vulnerable. Even many among the one out of four senior households with annual incomes above $50,000 are just one shock-- the loss of a spouse, job or health-- away from serious financial problems.
And don't believe the "chattering class'" intonations about not being able to afford Social Security, that it is going broke. Social Security has three streams of income, two of them ongoing no matter what-- contributions from the earnings of workers and income from treating some Social Security benefits as taxable. It's an extraordinary efficient system. Less than 1% of its expenditures go toward paying for its administration (hmm... imagine what percentages Wall Street and financial managers would take if they could get their hands on our Social Security!). Today's Social Security expenditures represent only 5.1% of GDP; and will be roughly 6.2% of GDP at the height of the retirement of baby boomers in 2035 and about the same until the end of the century. As a growing number of Democrats propose, if Congress passed legislation requiring millionaires and billionaires to make the same payroll contribution of 6.2% on all their earnings (just like everyone earning under $118,500 do today), roughly three-quarters of the projected shortfall would disappear overnight. And there are many other reasonable revenue changes that can and should provide resources for expanding benefits for today's workers and today's Social Security beneficiaries.
We can afford to expand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Indeed, we cannot afford not to do so. That's why I will work to:
• increase monthly Social Security benefits by roughly $100;
• assure that Social Security's cost-of-living-adjustment fully maintains the purchasing power of benefits;
• strengthen Medicare, including adding dental, hearing and eyesight protections;
• expand home and community services that support people of all ages with severe disabilities and their caregivers;
• lower the age of eligibility for Medicare;
• increase minimum wages to a living wage which will result in more income today and a larger Social Security benefit in the future; and
• add paid family leave to Social Security to support those needing time away from work to care for family members or when sick.
A few weeks ago, I was told by the political director of a local union that some people came up to him and said something like "he seems like a pretty good guy, but is it true that he is 70?" "Channeling" Grey Panther founder, Maggie Kuhn, I said, "Tell them I am 69 years old and proud of it! And that I am doing what 69, 70, 80 year olds (and youngers) should be doing-- giving back..." Well, I'm not running because of my age. But as someone who has written about the aging of our nation, ageism and the interdependence of generations, I have to admit that I enjoy the opportunity-- as teacher, parent, author , advocate and now "politician"-- to challenge stereotypes about old age and to make good social use of what Monsignor Charles Fahey has calls the "gift of extra years" that so many among today's older Americans are fortunate to have. But more importantly, I want to put my experience, passion and expertise to good use in representing the people in my congressional district. And, I want to work in conjunction with citizens, advocates and member of Congress to advance what Martin Luther King called "the beloved community"-- the community where we understand that..."all people [should] share in the wealth of the earth. ... [Where] poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because... human decency will not allow it."
Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University and candidate for representative in New York's 24th congressional district, is co-author (with Nancy J. Altman) of Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All (The New Press, 2015).
* This blog first appeared as a post on Howie Klein's Blue America site, Down with Tyranny.
** I took a leave of absence from my work with Social Security Works and from my membership and co-chair roles with the Strengthen Social Security Coalition when I registered on July 10 with the Federal Election Commission as a candidate for Congress.
- See more at: http://downwithtyranny.blogspot.com/2015/07/blue-america-endorses-eric-kingson-for.html#sthash.SLBqPAHO.dpuf