Donald Trump’s constant attacks on Gold Star families, former POWs, members of the military and veterans are the exception, in politics. Most politicians mark Veterans Day by loudly declaring their support for veterans and their families.
But if politicians truly wish to support veterans, they should protect and expand the government programs that serve them. One of these programs is Social Security, which serves our country’s military families and 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 of 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.
Nearly one million veterans, many of whom were seriously injured during their time in combat, receive Social Security disability benefits, despite the program’s extremely stringent test. When a service member dies or suffers a serious injury, Social Security is there, providing important support for them and their families. And those veterans who are fortunate to live to old age receive Social Security’s retirement benefits.
Currently over nine million veterans — about four in 10 — receive Social Security. Nearly all veterans and their families who are not yet Social Security beneficiaries will become so in the future.
Members of Congress who care about veterans should take two steps to allow Social Security to 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 the Social Security Administration can spend of that surplus on administration.
The agency has been starved for years, reducing the first-class service the American people have paid for and deserve. Congress should increase the amount it allows the Social Security Administration to spend of its own dedicated revenue – monies that are held in trust for contributors, beneficiaries, and their families.
The starvation of SSA has had its consequences. Wait times have increased, field offices have had their business hours curtailed, or worse, have been shuttered; and backlogs have grown. Indeed, Congress is contemplating cutting $400 million from what was spent last year. The Social Security Administration’s fixed costs for office space, telephones, electricity and the like keep going up. Consequently, Social Security has lost ground and will continue to do so, if this Republican Congress has its way, at a time when demand on it is increasing – even though it is running a surplus!
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, survivor annuities for deceased veterans’ family members (Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and Survivors Pension Benefits), and more. All of these veterans’ benefits lose value when there is not an adequate COLA.
The good news is that there is a growing movement to expand Social Security and to enact a better measure of inflation. Nearly every Democratic Senator and over 80 percent of House Democrats support expanding, not cutting, Social Security. In 2016, Social Security expansion was included in the Democratic Party platform.
As former chairman and current member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) fights hard for our nation’s veterans. Not coincidentally, Sanders is a leading champion of expanding Social Security. He has introduced legislation to increase its benefits across the board and enact a COLA that more accurately measures the cost of health care and other inflation experienced by the nation’s seniors and people with disabilities.
Republican leaders claim that they care about veterans and military families. Yet not only do they continue to support a President who disrespects these families at every opportunity, they are also 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, our elected leaders will talk about how deeply they care about those who have served our nation. They will talk about patriotism. Indeed, Donald Trump will divisively criticize professional athletes as unpatriotic, simply because they exercise their constitutional rights. But those words are dishonest as long as those politicians favor cutting Social Security and other programs that serve our veterans.
If we insist that our elected leaders fully fund SSA and expand Social Security — and make it clear that our vote depends on their actions — we will be honoring our veterans while also fighting to improve our own economic security. That will be a win for all of us.