Social Security: Serving Those Who Serve Our Nation

Veterans Day is a time to honor the service of our nation's over 20 million veterans. It should also be a moment to reflect on how our nation serves our veterans. Though Social Security is not generally considered a veterans' benefit, it serves our veterans well. If it is expanded, it would serve them even better.

Social Security insures workers and their families against the loss of wages in the event to death, disability, or old age. Social Security provides our active military, our veterans, and their families a vital foundation of economic protection, just as it does for the rest of us.

When a service member dies or suffers a serious injury, Social Security is there, providing important support for them and their families. Serving in a war zone increases drastically the risk of death or disability. More than 6,800 American servicemen and women have been killed on active duty in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving behind more than 4,000 children. Social Security is there for those families. A million or more have been seriously injured fighting in those wars. Nearly one million veterans receive Social Security disability benefits, despite the program's extremely stringent test.

And those veterans who are fortunate to live to old age receive Social Security. Currently over 9 million veterans--about 4 in 10 --receive Social Security. Nearly all veterans and their families who are not yet Social Security beneficiaries will become so in the future. About one-third of America's 60 million Social Security beneficiaries are veterans, their spouses or other family members living with veterans.

Members of Congress who care about veterans should take two steps to allow Social Security do a better job serving our nation's servicemen and women, veterans, all other workers and their families. Although Social Security currently has a $2.8 trillion reserve and is projected to be in surplus this year, Congress limits how much it can spend of that surplus on administration. The agency has been starved for years, which has created an enormous backlog for those applying for disability benefits. Congress should increase the amount it allows the Social Security Administration to spend of its own dedicated revenue.

Second, Social Security's benefits, which are too low, should be expanded. Like all Social Security benefits, those received by our veterans are generally vital, but also extremely modest. Beneficiaries who are veterans received an average benefit of just $1,377 in 2013 --$16,524 a year - not much above full-time, minimum wage work. Moreover, despite how vital these benefits are for both our veterans and nonveterans alike, they are gradually being cut as a result of changes that were enacted in the past and are still being phased in. Indeed, the benefits of those now in their 20s will be about 24 percent lower, as a result of these already enacted cuts.

Additionally, those modest benefits are not keeping pace with inflation, because of an inadequate cost of living adjustment ("COLA"). In recent years, Social Security's COLAs have ranged from tiny to non-existent. These inadequate COLAs are gradually eroding the value of Social Security benefits.

An inadequate measure of inflation, as we currently have, may hit veterans two or three times. In addition to receiving Social Security benefits, veteran families may also receive other benefits that are automatically adjusted to keep pace with inflation. These include Veterans Disability Compensation benefits, Veterans Pension benefits, Military Retirement Pay, the Subsistence Allowance for veterans participating in vocational rehabilitation and employment services programs, survivor annuities for deceased veterans' family members (Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and Survivors Pension Benefits), educational allowances for veterans' surviving family members, and Veterans' Monetary Burial Benefits (a plot allowance). All of these veterans' benefits lose value when there is not an adequate COLA. And many veterans receive more than one type of benefit, so they are doubly or triply hurt.

The good news is that there is a growing movement to expand Social Security and to enact a better measure of inflation. Forty-three Senators and over 100 U.S. Representatives support expanding, not cutting, Social Security. As former chairman and current member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has fought hard for veterans. Not coincidentally, he is a leading champion of Social Security, and has introduced legislation to increase its benefits across the board and enact a more accurate COLA that more accurately measures the cost of health care and other inflation experienced by the nation's seniors and people with disabilities.

Until those improvements are enacted, another champion of Social Security and veterans, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), has introduced the Seniors and Veterans Emergency (SAVE) Benefits Act, which would provide those receiving Social Security, veterans benefits, SSI payments, and other indexed benefits with a one-time payment equal to 3.9 percent of Social Security's average benefit, or about $580. The 3.9 percent is used because that is the average raise the top 350 CEOs received last year. Those one-time payments are fully paid for by closing the "performance pay" tax loophole, which benefits wealthy CEOs and their employers.

Republican leaders, including those running for president, claim that they care about our veterans. At the same time, most are advocating cutting or even dismantling Social Security. They can't have it both ways. Cutting Social Security is cutting the benefits of those who have served our nation.

This Veterans Day, let's not let our elected leaders simply talk about how deeply they care about those who have served our nation. Let's hold them accountable. Let's find out if they favor expanding or cutting Social Security and other programs that serve our veterans. Let's ask them if they favor or oppose Senator Warren's bill to provide seniors, veterans, and others with a stopgap payment in 2016, in recognition that their costs are going up, despite what an inadequate measure indicates.

If we do this - and make it clear that our vote depends on their answers -- we will be honoring our veterans while also fighting to improve our own economic security. That will be a win for all of us.