Sanders, Brown, Grijalva and Conyers: “Hands Off Social Security”


A group of Senators and Representatives have a message for the deficit reform commission and the White House: Keep your hands off Social Security.

Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), John Conyers (D-MI) and Daniel Maffei (D-NY) briefed reporters on their efforts to head off changes to Social Security that they deem not only unwarranted but dangerous. Sanders and Brown have introduced a Senate Resolution anticipating changes they believe will be proposed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the body created by President Obama to make recommendations on reducing the deficit.

In the Senate, Brown and Sanders have introduced a “sense-of-the-Senate” resolution on Social Security, which if passed would:

[Express] the sense of the Senate in opposition to privatizing Social Security, raising the retirement age, or other similar cuts to benefits under title II of the Social Security Act.

As of this writing, the resolution has 11 co-sponsors.

A letter from House members to President Obama opposing changes to Social Security is now circulating for signatures.  “You have charged the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with proposing recommendations that improve the long-term fiscal outlook and address the growth of entitlement spending,” says the letter.

It is our view that Social Security—which is prohibited by law from adding to the national budget deficit—does not belong as part of those recommendations. By 2023, Social Security will have built up a $4.3 trillion surplus, and, without any action, can pay at least 75 percent of all benefits thereafter. Because Social Security is funded separately from the general treasury and has no borrowing authority, it has not contributed to the federal deficit. Despite these facts, some Commission members have repeatedly alleged the need to cut Social Security for budgetary reasons.

Put simply, in the words of John Conyers, these lawmakers want the Commission “to keep their paws off it.”

Today, more than 53 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, including 36.5 million retirees and their spouses, 8.2 million disabled persons and their spouses, 4.5 million surviving spouses of deceased workers, and 4.3 million dependent children.  Social Security makes up virtually the only income available to one-third of elderly citizens in the United States.  It is a critically important resource for older women who are disproportionately represented among the elderly poor.

“Women are almost twice as likely to live in poverty in their senior years as men are,” says a report posted on StrengthenSocialSecurity.org by Wider Opportunities for Women and the National Elder Economic Security Initiative.

“Due to pay equity issues, the occupational segregation of women in low-wage jobs, and their cycling in and out of the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities, women often find themselves with a Social Security payment that provides inadequate income. The average annual Social Security income for all women provides a single elder homeowner without a mortgage just over 60% of the income required to achieve economic security.”

According to the Congressional Budget Office, full benefits will still be available to every recipient until 2039 even if no changes are made to the Social Security program, and enough funding will remain after that date to pay about 80 percent of promised benefits.

But given the background and leanings of the co-chairs of the commission, former Republican Senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson, and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (now President of the University of North Carolina), not to mention Simpson’s comments this summer deriding Social Security as “a milk cow with 310 million tits,” the Senators and Representatives are deeply concerned that the Commission will recommend at least three steps: Privatizing Social Security, cutting benefits to recipients, and raising the retirement age.

The lawmakers argue that based on the evidence, none of these steps are necessary.

Calling Social Security “America’s most successful and reliable retirement program,” Sanders and Brown strenuously objected to what they see as gross misrepresentations of the program.

Social Security is not in crisis or going bankrupt and has been running surpluses for the last quarter-century, the Senators noted, and currently has a $2.6 trillion surplus. “It has not contributed a dime to the Federal budget deficit or national debt,” said Sanders.

They object to privatization as unnecessary and risky.  “Proposals to privatize Social Security would jeopardize the retirement security of millions of Americans by relying on the ups-and-downs of the volatile stock market to provide benefits,” states the Senate Resolution.  Such a move, said Brown, would only serve “big money interests [that would] love to see Social Security privatized.”

They also object to increases in the retirement age.  Shifting to a later retirement age, argued the lawmakers, would have an undue burden on the millions of people who engage in demanding physical work throughout their lifetimes and who have paid into Social Security.

“I have a neighbor,” said Brown, “who has been a carpenter all his life.  He is now in his fifties, with a bad back and knees.  He can not continue working as a carpenter til age 70 or 75.  There are many people who just can not work at their jobs until these later ages.”

Social Security benefits have already been cut by 13 percent, as the Normal Retirement Age was raised in 1983 from 65 years of age to 67 years of age by 2022, noted the Senators. 

“The physical demands of a job differ from industry to industry and, on average, the longevity of the lives of individuals differ significantly according to their level of income, education, and access to health care. Forty-five percent of workers 58 years of age or
older are in jobs that are physically demanding or have difficult working conditions.

They also point out that raising the retirement age is especially burdensome to African-American, Latino, and older low-income workers, and that the current job market is one of the worst on record for Americans 55 years of age and above. 

“Social Security,” said Grijalva, “is universal and is solvent. It needs to be strengthened, not tampered with.”

“We oppose all cuts to Social Security,” said Conyers. “This is something that I hope the Obama Administration will join with us on; no benefit cuts, no raising retirement age, no privatization.”

And if the Administration does adopt any such recommendations coming from the Commission? “They’ll have a difficult time with us,” Grijalva warned.

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