Guest essay: We need more, not less, Social Security
by Doug Noble
At a time when Social Security cuts are routinely threatened, the program should instead be drastically expanded. One historian of Social Security, political science professor Max J. Skidmore of the University of Missouri, reminds us that the program “was never designed to be a complete retirement system.” It was originally viewed as just one leg of a “threelegged stool” whose other legs were company pensions and private savings. But Social Security is now the only leg standing, since companies are eliminating pension plans and many workers are not paid enough to save for retirement. These days Social Security provides at least 90 percent of the total income of one-third of America’s retirees, hardly an adequate income for retirement. The non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes also that U.S. “Social Security benefits are modest by international standards.” The United States ranks 30th among 34 developed countries in the percentage of earnings it replaces for a worker with a median income.
Countering conventional wisdom, then, Skidmore proposes that “rather than cut Social Security benefits, Social Security should be expanded to provide two or three times its current level of benefits.” A plan designed by Skidmore with late Sen. George McGovern recommends paying for these expanded benefits in part by eliminating the $110,100 cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, just as Medicare has no income limit subject to taxation.
Noted economist William Greider also argues for expanding retirement benefits. He suggests, however, that while “improving Social Security benefits is one step … the real crisis … is not Social Security but the colossal failure of the private pension system.” So Greider proposes that “the solution to retirement insecurity is the creation of a national pension, alongside Social Security,” in the manner of existing plans for civil servants. It is high time to go beyond simply defending Social Security from repeated assaults and threats. By most authoritative accounts, the Social Security system is financially secure for years to come, though many of its current beneficiaries are only minimally secure.
Rep. Louise Slaughter has just co-sponsored a bill that eliminates the cap on Social Security taxes on income over $250,000 a year. This legislation would affect only the wealthiest 1.3 percent of Americans yet yield about $85 billion a year for Social Security. This is an important first step in standing firm against the bluster of austerity propaganda and deficit paranoia. We must demand more, not less, from Social Security and from an expanded national retirement system.
Noble is a longtime member of Metro Justice.