The Impact of Social Security Reform Should Be Required Reading for the Supercommittee

It is not surprising that Congress's approval rating is, for the first time, in single digits. The views of the American people who -- across party lines and all demographics -- consistently say "do not cut Social Security," "Do not cut Medicare" lack standing in this policy discussion.
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Co-authored by Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson

No surprise, this Tuesday, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (a.k.a., the "Supercommittee") is listening to all the normal Washington insiders talk about why Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of programs critically important to the American people must be sacrificed on the altar of deficit-reduction. What we have here is the one percent speaking to the one percent, recommending sacrifices from the ninety-nine percent

Yes, only the so-called "adults" have been invited to tell the Supercommittee why it's imperative that Congress cut Social Security, even though it adds not one penny to the deficit -- and these other vitally important programs to show the rate-setting agencies, the bond markets and Wall Street that Congress can enact unpopular reforms.

It is not surprising that Congress's approval rating is, for the first time, in single digits. The views of the American people who -- across party lines and all demographics -- consistently say "do not cut Social Security," "Do not cut Medicare" lack standing in this policy discussion. The views the majority of Americans who say that income and wealth inequality is running amuck are also virtually ignored. Neither is the potential and disproportionate harm that proposed cuts will inflict on people of color, on women, on low-income and moderate income families discussed.

If the members of the Supercommittee really want to understand the implications of what they are considering for the "other 99 percent," especially for persons of color, they should start by reading "Plan for a New Future: The Impact of Social Security Reform on People of Color," the Report of the Commission to Modernize Social Security. The report, the work of 19 experts knowledgeable about and representing racial and ethnic communities of color, presents a plan for "strengthening Social Security in light of the unique socioeconomic and cultural circumstances facing communities of color."

The report highlights how the cuts under discussion in Congress would hurt African American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latino, and Native American communities. Among the report's many important findings are that:

  • Social Security's annual cost of living adjustment is particularly important to Latinos and Asian Americans who have longer life expectancies than the general population.

  • Social Security's early retirement option is particularly important to African Americans and Native Americans who have shorter life expectancies than the general population.
  • Social Security's life insurance and disability insurance are particularly important to people of color who are disproportionately in physically challenging jobs, and consequently have disproportionately higher incidences of severe disability and premature death. The provision of Social Security benefits to children of deceased and disabled workers are particularly important to children of color.
  • Because people of color are less likely to be in jobs covered by private pensions, they are more likely to have Social Security as their only or predominant source of retirement income.
  • Social Security's benefits are already extremely modest, averaging just $13,000. Its retirement age is already increasing under current law. That two year increase, from age 65 to age 67 amounts to a 13 percent benefit cut even for workers who do not claim benefits until age 70 or beyond. Its annual cost of living adjustment already under-measures the living costs of older Americans and people with disabilities who have substantially higher medical costs, on average, than the general population. Consequently, those benefits lose purchasing power every year -- one of the reasons those over age 85, primarily women, have disproportionately higher rates of poverty.

    To cut these benefits further, either through a further increase in the retirement age, a less-generous COLA, a reduction in the level of initial benefits, or any other way, will hurt the economic security of all Americans, but particularly people of color, and especially today's young adults and children of color.

    A quick read through this report should give policymakers pause about the assumptions and processes driving the efforts of many to dramatically cut Social Security. Our nation today has a majority of whites. By 2042, it is projected that the majority of the nation will be people of color. That means that the Supercommittee and today's Congress, both overwhelmingly white men, might cut the Social Security benefits of tomorrow's retired, disabled and surviving beneficiaries -- who in time will be largely people of color -- with no opportunity of those groups to be heard. What an outrage that would be.

    With the growing wealth inequality in this country, the right answer is what every poll indicates the American people want -- require the wealthiest Americans among us to pay somewhat more for Social Security, so today's benefits can be maintained -- and even increased -- for all of today's children.

    Nancy Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security, and Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University, are co-directors of Social Security Works ( ) and co-chair the Strengthen Social Security Campaign (

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