Expand Social Security

Guest essay: We need more, not less, Social Security

Democrat & Chronicle, March 15, 2013

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.

 

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