In the bizarro world of politics in the United States today, probably the most radical government program that exists — the one most close to a socialist idea that actually works and is popular with the vast majority of Americans — is Social Security.
Established in 1936 as a pillar of the hugely popular President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, it sought to establish a floor benefit for elder workers and the disabled that would at least keep a roof over their heads, whether their own or a relative’s, and allow them to buy the food they’d need to survive.
That program, astonishingly, has proven so successful that despite generations of Republican — and some conservative corporatist Democratic politicians’ — efforts at sabotage and undermining it Social Security has endured largely intact for almost 86 years, through depressions and recessions, wars, and budget ipasses, all without missing a payment.
Today nearly 60 million Americans receive monthly Social Security benefit checks which on average replace approximately 40% to the income they were earning before retirement. That’s not the 60% income replacement that prevails in many European countries retirement systems, but it’s still hugely important. According to a recent Vanguard study, some 35% of Social Security beneficiaries — over 20 million Americans — rely on those monthly checks to cover at least 90% of their living costs. Another 29% rely on their SSA checks to cover between 50% and 90% of their living expenses. Only just over a third — 36% — of beneficiaries meet less than 35% of their living expenses thanks to their Social Security checks.
And the people benefitting from those checks, which average $1431 a month according to that same study, aren’t the only ones who are being helped by them. So are their younger relatives — especially children — who in the absence of the Social Security program, or should its benefit checks be severely reduced, would be forced to subsidize their parents’ living expenses themselves, even as they are trying to build their own careers and raise their own children. (The way things were back before 1936.)
And yet, despite these realities, there is a concerted program underway, primarily by the Republican Party and its elected leaders in Washington, which has been going on for decades, to destroy Social Security through a thousand cuts. Most of these attacks are being done furtively, under the radar of both the public and the media. Over the years, against the wishes of the American public, Congress in the early 1980s in a bipartisan “deal,” began raising the retirement age for Social Security, and began taxing benefit checks. Earlier, Congress raised the FICA tax from 3% in 1961 to its current 6.2% for both employees and employers.
The most insidious undermining of Social Security has been a refusal for over two decades by Republicans in Congress (again with the support of some neoliberal Democrats beholden to Wall Street banks and investment houses and financial planning organizations, including long-time former Senator and now President Joe Biden), to honestly adjust Social Security each year to account for the ravages of inflation. It is estimated that the failure of Congress to adjust benefit checks each January to account for the real increases the elderly face ifor housing, transportation, health care, food, heat and utilities, etc., has reduced the purchasing power of those benefits to which elders and the disabled are entitled by about 30% since 2001!
Efforts to have that annual shortfall (which is cumulative and thus essentially a “compound interest” effect played out in reverse) reversed and the stolen money reimbursed to recipients, have been constantly blocked by right-wingers in Congress who get campaign “bribes” from the financial services industry lobby. Those corporate interests would like to see Social Security replaced by just IRAs and 401K plans. The financial service interests want the management fees, while the corporate the National Assn. of Manufacturers and US Chamber of Commerce represent employers who loathe the 6.2% FICA payroll tax they have to fork over to the US Treasury on the income of every employee and would love to see it disappear.
The rightists, with the willing assistance of a US corporate media that thrives on scare stories, have for decades been warning darkly the Social Security is a “ponzi scheme” and that it is “going bankrupt,” while also telling younger workers especially that even as they see 6.2% in FICA tax for Social Security getting deducted from every paycheck, Social Security “may not be there for you when you retire.” They act like it’s some act of god when it’s actually their own obstinate refusal to adequately fund the program. Their goal of course is to get younger voters to turn against the program that their parents and grandparents depend upon, not because it isn’t needed, but because they may come to falsely believe the lie that they won’t get anything for all that money they are paying each payday into the Social Security system.
The truth is that this program has been so incredibly successful, and that its benefits can paid in full indefinitely into the future if Congress would just make a few minor changes, like ending the cap on income subject to FICA taxation from the current $142,800, so that all income is taxed at 6.2% for workers and 6.2% for the employer, and like expanding that tax to also apply to investment income, and not just paychecks. (Note — most ordinary people invest any money they can afford to invest in bank CDs that earn interest, or in stock funds in a deferred tax status, and these would not be subject to any expanded FICA tax. Only ordinary non-deferred-tax investments would face a FICA tax.) Right now rich investors can make millions (or billions!) playing the stock and bond markets and pay nothing into the Social Security fund.
There is nothing more progressive that could be done right now than to organize a massive movement to demand that all candidates running for national office endorse a program of raising FICA taxes on the wealthy and on employers to an amount necessary to close the anticipated gap between what will be coming in each year in FICA taxes, and what needs to be paid out in benefits to retirees and the disabled. Younger workers need a guarantee that benefits will be there when it’s their turn to collect them. Older people need to know that their benefit checks will no longer be eaten away on the sly by deliberately low-balled annual inflation adjustments. In fact there should be a campaign to get that stolen 30% of benefits since 2001 restored!
It must be pointed out that such a campaign is particularly urgent for women and people of color because of the structural oppression of all of those demographic groups which has seen them paid less for the same work, kept in low-paying occupations and forced by the nature of their work to take retirement early, all of which has translated into lower benefits when they become eligible for Social Security benefits. The vast majority of elder women, elder people of color, and disabled persons of any age, end up receiving much lower-than-average benefit checks, and are in that category of Americans who depend entirely or almost entirely on those smaller checks to survive. When those checks keep losing their purchasing power to inflation, the pain is not just an annoyance — it is life-threatening.
There is probably no program in the US that is closer to being an example of functioning socialism than Social Security in uber-capitalist America (not counting the US Postal Service, which is currently being destroyed too by Republicans). Call it “Socialism in One Demographic.” That is one reason, maybe even the major reason, that it is and has long been under attack by the Right almost since its inception.
We on the left need to organize militantly to defend and improve it. For decades the Right, backed by the US corporate media, has attacked the idea of a government pension as a disaster that destroys the economy by burdening businesses and cutting employee sending power, and yet most of Europe and even many less developed countries like South Korea and Taiwan manage to have significantly more generous social security-style retirement programs that and at the same time more successful economies and higher standards of livings than we have in the US. That story simply doesn’t get told.
We need to tell it, to fight to preserve it and to improve it!