GAO Report Reveals Social Security Benefits Gap between Rich, Poor

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 1, 2016

We intuitively know that there is a growing income gap between America’s rich and poor. We heard it for months during the presidential democratic debates. But a newly released GAO report documents this charge, the disparities and their impact on Social Security Benefits.

Growing disparities in life expectancy between America’s rich and poor is eroding the progressive nature of Social Security. A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Shorter Life Expectancy Reduces Projected Lifetime Benefits for Lower Income,” requested by Senator Bernie Sanders, shows that low-income American men (making about $20,000 a year) will lose 11 percent to 14 percent of their lifetime Social Security benefits while high-income men (making $80,000 annually) will see a 16 percent to 18 percent benefit boost due to this growing gap.

Life Expectancy Impacts SSA Benefits

The GAO study, released on April 4, 2016, found that raising the Social Security retirement age would result in even fewer benefits for lower-income groups. Lower-income men are living between 4 and 13 fewer years than higher-income men, and lower-income women are living between 2 and 14 fewer years than higher-income women.

“Poverty should not be a death sentence,” said Sanders, who serves as ranking member on the Primary Health and Retirement Security Subcommittee. “When over half of older workers have no retirement savings, we need to expand, not cut, Social Security so that every American can retire with the benefits they’ve earned and the dignity they deserve,” he says.

According to 64 page GAO report, the wealthiest Americans are not only living longer and collecting more in Social Security benefits, they are also contributing less of their income toward Social Security. Almost all of the income gains over the past three decades have gone to those earning above the $118,500 earnings cap and have therefore been exempt from Social Security taxes, costing the Social Security Trust Fund over $1.1 trillion, says the report.

“Today, the wealthiest Americans contribute less to Social Security than at any other time in recent history. We must reject calls to raise the retirement age and instead strengthen Social Security by ensuring millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share,” Sanders said.

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), says that the GAO report is especially important when you consider the push in Congress to raise Social Security’s retirement age to reduce benefits. “Forcing average Americans to delay retirement until 70, as suggested by some in Washington, would mean even smaller benefits for lower-income groups,” he says.

Richtman notes that NCPSSM has long opposed increasing the Social Security retirement age, stating that it is “nothing but a cruel cut in benefits” The GAO report shows exactly how cruel it would be, he says.

Instead of cutting Social Security, Richtman calls on Congress to boost benefits so that retirement income program can continue to fulfill its promise providing an adequate base of income for America’s seniors.

Lawmakers Push to Protect Social Security

Sanders, a presidential Democratic candidate, has introduced legislation that would ensure that Social Security would be able to pay every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 58 years. His plan would increase benefits by more than $1,300 a year for seniors with less than $16,000 in annual income. This includes boosting yearly cost-of-living adjustments by making the consumer price index better reflect seniors’ rising costs for health care and prescription medicine.

To shore up the retirement program’s trust fund, the Senator would lift the cap on taxable income so everyone who makes more than $250,000 a year would pay the same percentage of their income into Social Security as middle-class working families.

“This report reinforces the importance of strengthening Social Security and preserving the guarantee of Medicare, especially for working and middle class Rhode Islanders,” said Congressman Cicilline (D-RI), who is a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. “After a lifetime of hard work, Rhode Islanders should be able to retire with economic security and peace of mind, he says, pledging to continue his efforts to support “commonsense” legislation that strengthen Social Security benefits.

The GAO study is a warning that proposals to raise the retirement age “would fall hardest on those who can least afford it,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). As a founding member of the Defending Social Security Caucus, Whitehouse plans to explore ways to strengthen the Social Security, “the bedrock of American retirement security.”

GAO made no recommendations in this report. However, in comments the Social Security Administration (SSA) agreed with GAO’s finding that it is important to understand how the life expectancy in different income groups may affect retirement income. The federal agency sees financial literacy as a key factor in preparing for a “secured retirement.”

According to a SSA official, “Social Security offers one of the best tools for the public to plan for their retirement and educate themselves about their benefits – a my Social Security account which is a secure, personalized online account that can be created at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. With a my Social Security account, people can check their Social Security Statement to learn about future Social Security benefits, verify annual earnings, and plan for their financial future. More than 23 million people have already created secure, convenient accounts,” he says.

In recent years Congress has looked for ways to keep the Social Security program afloat by adjusting Social Security tax contributions, increasing retirement age, and reducing benefit amounts. Now with the release of the new report findings, the message is clear. Congress must not tinker with Social Security until it understands the unanticipated impact on those receiving the benefit checks, especially on the lower-income retirees.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.

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