"We are now in the midst of the fiercest and best-financed attack against Social Security in our lifetimes," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) warned today on the 77th anniversary of the most successful program in the modern history of the United States. "Hundreds of millions of dollars are now being spent to destroy Social Security and endanger the well-being of millions of Americans. We must not allow that effort to succeed."
In the years since President Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security into law on August 14, 1935, the retirement program has been one of the nation's most successful anti-poverty programs. "Before Social Security existed, about half of America's senior citizens lived in poverty," Sanders said. "Today, less than 10 percent live in poverty. Since its inception some 77 years ago, through good economic times and bad, Social Security has paid out every penny owed to every eligible beneficiary. This is a remarkable success story," said Sanders, the head of the Senate Defending Social Security Caucus.
Despite right-wing misinformation, the program that benefits 55 million seniors, disabled Americans, widows, widowers and orphans has a $2.7 trillion surplus. Social Security, which is funded by the payroll tax, has not contributed one nickel to the deficit and, according to its trustees, can pay 100 percent of all benefits owed to every eligible American for the next 21 years.
Despite Social Security's overwhelming success, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has been a proponent of privatizing the retirement program by putting seniors' savings into risky Wall Street investments. Even before tapping Ryan as his running mate, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had said he wants to begin the process of privatizing Social Security. He also would gradually increase the retirement age to 68 or 69. And he favors slowing the growth of benefits for persons with "higher incomes." Under a plan floated by Romney's allies on Capitol Hill - Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) - someone making about $45,000 a year today who retires in 2050 would receive 32 percent less in annual Social Security benefits than under the current formula. By that definition, the top 60 percent of all wage earners would be considered "higher income."
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, was a staunch defender of Social Security in his 2008 campaign. So far this year, however, Obama has refused to stand behind his four-year-old opposition to cuts. In fact, the president has signaled that he may be open to lowering benefits by changing how they are calculated. "It is long past time that the president told the American people in no uncertain terms, as he did in 2008, that he will not cut Social Security on his watch," Sanders said.
To keep Social Security's finances sound in the future, Sanders introduced legislation - identical to a proposal that Obama advocated in 2008 - to apply the payroll tax on income above $250,000 a year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is among 10 cosponsors of Sanders' bill. Under current law, only earnings up to $110,100 are taxed. The Center for Economic Policy and Research has estimated that applying the Social Security payroll tax on income above $250,000 would only impact the wealthiest 1.4 percent of wage earners.
Those who would undermine Social Security have advocated a so-called "chained-CPI." That approach changes how the Consumer Price Index is calculated so that a person 65 years old today would earn $560 a year less in Social Security benefits once they turn 75. Benefits would be cut by nearly $1,000 a year once they turn 85. Instead, Sanders has sponsored legislation to base Social Security cost-of-living adjustments on a Consumer Price Index for the Elderly, a measure that would increase benefits because it would take into account the real-life impact of rising health care costs and prescription drug expenses paid by seniors.