Let Rhode Island’s Social Security Debate Begin

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 21, 2016

It’s less than 80 days before the upcoming 2016 presidential election. At press time, Social Security has been placed on the backburner as the GOP standard bearer Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, turn their attention to crime, national security, health care and the economy.

On the sideline, nearly 218,000 Rhode Islanders who collect Social Security benefits, including 155,710 seniors, 37,476 disabled workers, and 17,802 survivors of a deceased spouse or parent, are closely watching one of the nation’s nastiest political campaign unfold. Political insiders and aging groups know that whoever takes over the White House and controls Congress will control in the year’s to come how retiree’s receive their retirement checks.

Putting a Spotlight on Social Security

Earlier this week David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and John B. Larson (D-CT) came to the Rumford Towers in East Providence to put the spotlight on Social Security, both stressing how important it is to keep Social Security solvent through the end of this century. The two Democratic lawmakers called on GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan to move their introduced legislation, “Social Security 2100 Act,” from House Committee to floor vote.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity, economic security, and peace of mind. It’s critical that Congress act expeditiously to preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline to over 80 attendees at the 90 minute event.

Larson noted that Social Security is not an entitlement but benefits that have been earned by hard-working Americans who have paid into the retirement system their whole lives. “Two-thirds of retirees rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, and it is a lifeline for the disabled and those who have lost a loved one,” he said, calling those pushing for Social Security cuts as “fundamentally misguided.”

The Nuts & Bolts

The “Social Security 2100 Act,” introduced by Cicilline and Larson in 2015, expands Social Security benefits, cuts taxes for 11 million seniors, provides stronger cost of living adjustments, and requires millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share. The legislative proposal also provides an immediate increase equivalent to 2% of the average benefit for all Social Security recipients. This change is projected to yield an annual increase for the typical retiree of $300.

The Democratic lawmakers Social Security fix also improves the annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) formula to reflect the prices of goods and services seniors actually buy – especially housing, health care, and transportation – to ensure that seniors aren’t asked to go without a COLA to protect against inflation. In three of the past seven years, Rhode Island seniors did not receive a COLA as a result of the inadequate formula that is used today.

Finally, the Cicilline-Larson Plan also lifts the cap on payroll taxes for individuals making more than $400,000 each year, requiring the wealthiest 0.4% of Americans to pay the same rate as all other workers. The increased revenue generated as a result will provide a tax cut for 11 million seniors and establish a new minimum benefit so that no one who has worked hard and played by the rules is asked to retire into poverty. Tax relief for Social Security beneficiaries due to an increase in the threshold for taxation of Social Security benefits to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint filers, up from $25,000 and $32,000 respectively.

While current projections indicate that the Social Security Trust Fund will begin generating annual deficits in 2019 and stop paying out full benefits in 2033, the Cicilline-Larson Plan expands the lifeline of Social Security through the end of this century by gradually phasing in an increase in the contribution rate equivalent to 50 cents per week for the average worker.

NCPSSM Gives Thumbs Up

In an endorsement letter, Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), calls the Cicilline-Larson Plan “a bold step on behalf of seniors and all Americans by strengthening and safeguarding Social Security for future beneficiaries while at the same time making important improvements in the adequacy of the benefits the program provides.”

According to Richtman, the “Social Security 2100 Act” strengthens the retirement programs “financial foundations.” He says: “First, it extends the payroll tax to all wages paid to workers that are in excess of $400,000. Over time, the bill would completely eliminate the cap on Social Security payroll taxes. Second, the “Social Security 2100 Act” implements a small,
gradual increase in workers’ and employers’ contributions to Social Security. Because the increase is phased in over a long period of time, the average worker would see his or her annual contributions to the Social Security program increase by about 50 cents per week.”

In this presidential election cycle, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, sees Democrats making a “big push” to strengthen and expand the Social Security program. “This will not likely happen as long as there is a Republican Congress as many members of the GOP want to cut the future rate of growth of Social Security and increase the retirement age,” he says, predicting that there is a good chance Democrats will get the Senate back.

West adds, “whether the GOP regain control of the House will depend on how big the presidential victory is. If Clinton wins big, she may sweep in enough Democrats to have control of that chamber. In that situation, this legislation has much better prospects. A President Clinton could very well be interested in this proposal and be willing to sign it into law.”

Where’s the Beef?

Political newcomer and GOP challenger H. Russell Taub, calls on Cicilline, his Democratic opponent in the 1st Congressional District race, to not attach new benefits to Social Security, a self-funded program. Taub wonders how new federal expenditures to pay for added Social Security benefits will impact the heavily burdened retirement program.

Taub sees a need to have a “serious public discourse” on the nation’s budget. “When we’ve come to a conclusion lets craft meaningful legislation to get the law to reflect that decision. Let’s not drop flash-in-the-pan, headline grabbing false initiatives just because it’s an election year. Our Constituents in the First District deserve much better than that shabby treatment,” he says.

“AARP Take a Stand volunteers and members of our staff were on hand to listen to what the Congressmen had to say,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Having candidates for office outlining their specific plan for making the necessary changes to preserve Social Security is what Take a Stand is all about. We are not at this time endorsing specific proposals, but we are engaging our members to keep asking for substantive answers. We’ve been saying ‘sound bites aren’t good enough.’ The Congressmen, indeed, go beyond a sound bite by presenting this plan in a public venue open to the media. People deserve to know how the plans will affect our families, what it will cost, and how they’ll get it done.

“Doing nothing is not an option.” Connell continued. “Every time the candidates dodge the question, our families pay the price.

If our nation’s leaders don’t act, future retirees stand to lose up to $10,000 a year. And every year our leaders wait and do nothing, finding a solution grows more and more difficult.”

Rhode Island voters are now able to see Cicilline’s fix for strengthening Social Security and expanding its benefits, detailed in his introduced legislative proposal, “Social Security 2100 Act.” GOP challenger Taub must throw in his two cents for strengthening the nation’s retirement program, but give us the details. Do you favor the GOP approach for privatizing Social Security? What is your position on raising the cap on Social Security payroll contributions to address the retirement program’s projected shortfall? Do you support raising the retirement age? What are your thoughts about slowly increasing the payroll contribution rate by 1/20th of one percent over 20 years to strengthen the program’s financial condition? Or even changing the current COLA formula.

While the presidential candidates put the economy, crime, and national security in the spotlight at their rallies, town meetings and speeches, Social Security receives little coverage. Let the serious debate begin in the Ocean State. Hopefully, this act will spread like wild fire across the country.

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Checking That off My Bucket List

This ‘Age Beat’ Writer to Publish Collected Stories on a Myriad of Aging Issues

Published in Woonsocket call on August 7, 2016

With the graying of America, a growing number of aging Baby Boomers and seniors are turning to newspapers, television and cable shows and even the Internet to learn more about growing old. This “age beat” coverage percolates up from the bottom of a newsroom, often with middle-aged reporters and editors/producers who are now facing the elder care issues of their elderly parents or in-laws, says San Francisco-based journalist Paul Kleyman, who edits Generations Age Beat Online (GBONews.org), an e-newsletter of the Journalists Network on Generations, distributed to more than 1,000 journalists and authors on aging. They discover “what a huge, untold story it is,” he notes.

Over the years, like many of the nation’s news organization’s The Pawtucket Times, created an ‘Age Beat’ in 2002 that allowed this writer for several years to cover a myriad of aging issues, including Social Security and Medicare, ethics, long-term care, consumer issues, spirituality, pop culture, health care and economics. Ultimately I returned in July 2012 to resume writing of my weekly commentary, with The Woonsocket Call picking it up. My ‘Age Beat’ at these Northern Rhode Island daily newspapers continues to this day.

As an ‘age beat’ journalist for over 36 years, I have penned more than 600 stories covering aging, health care and medical issues. These authored and coauthored pieces have appeared in national, state and local trade and association publications, daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and even news blogs.

AARP Rhode Island recognized my journalistic efforts to educate the public on aging issues in Amy weekly commentaries that appeared in The Pawtucket Times when I received AARP Rhode Island’s 2003 Vision Award. My efforts in covering the long-term care continuum caught the attention of the American College of Health Care Administrators and I became a two time recipient, in 1994 and again in 1999, of its Journalism Award. I also was awarded the Distinguished Alumni’s Award by the Center for Studies in Aging, North Texas State University, in 1997, for my career coverage of aging issues. In 1997, the prestigious McKnight’s LTC News identified me as one of its “100 Most Influential People” in Long-Term Care.

Crossing ‘One Thing to Do’ Off My Bucket List

As a seasoned writer I can now cross off the publishing of my first book from my life’s bucket list. My first book, a collection of 79 newspaper commentaries, will be published shortly by Chepachet-based Stillwater River Publications. Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, brings together this collection published in the Pawtucket Times, and Woonsocket Call, each article citing the date it was published.

Although a commentary in this book may have been written years ago, and the person quoted is no longer in his or her position or even deceased, the insight that they gave in their interview is still factual and valuable. While most of my sources are from Rhode Island, their stories are universal and their insights applicable anywhere in the nation.

The 291 page book is chock full of researched stories and insightful interviews with experts and everyday people who have shared their personal observations about growing older. The stories cover a variety of aging issues ranging from caregiving and retirement planning, health and wellness, mental health, preplanning your funeral, choosing the right nursing home, Social Security and Medicare, and pop culture to thoughts about spirituality and death.

A short summary on the back of the book says, “Don’t just grow older, take charge and age boldly!” The collection of stories, organized in 13 chapters offers readers – age 50 plus and even those younger – insights and practical information as to how they can plan and enjoy a full and satisfying quality of life unparalleled in our history. With increasing lifespans, Americans are living longer, decades after our retirement.

In Praise of…

 In the foreword of this book, Kathleen S. Connell State Director of AARP Rhode Island, sets the stage for readers as to what they can expect from reading this book. “He moves beyond the surface to explore the facts as well as the depth of feelings beneath it. In this era of speed and change, with eternal youth as a major goal, he takes the time to find the truth, and then uses it to illuminate the many facts of aging with timeless observations delivered in lively readable portions, says Connell.  Meanwhile, short pithy statements on the back cover of Taking Charge: Collective Stories on Aging Boldly, from well-known Rhode Islanders and national aging experts give their thumbs up and endorsement of this book. Specifically:

“Herb Weiss’ book gives practical information for caregivers and a foreshadowing for those of us approaching retirement years. Links keep the information fresh.” — Dr. Nancy Carriuolo, former President of Rhode Island College.

“Herb Weiss reminds our anti-aging society that becoming pro-aging can bring us greater rewards than mere wrinkle cream and tummy tucks.” — Paul Kleyman, Publisher of Generations Beat Online, the E-News of the Journalist Network on Generations

‘Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly’ is more than a book about aging well. What it actually reveals is how to live well. Each page crackles with insight, perspective and good advice. There’s a lot of hard-earned wisdom to be found on these pages.” —John O’Connor, Editorial Director at McKnight’s Long-Term Care News

“These stories within stories blend real-world wisdom and research to create an engaging and enlightening view of the many sides of aging that is both informative and inspiring.” —Dr. Phil Clark, Director of Gerontology Program, University of Rhode Island

“Herb Weiss’ unique experience as a journalist, congressional aide, arts and culture critic and aging expert come together beautifully in this rich sweep of commentary on aging in America today.” — William Benson, Managing Principal in Health Benefits and former Assistant Secretary for Aging, U.S. Administration on Aging

“Herb Weiss knows well the power of the personal story to both teach and learn. Aging brings changes and challenges, whether we are a caregiver, the one in care, or anyone who is dealing with his or her own aging.” —Connie Goldman, Speaker, Author, and Public Radio Producer on Aging Issues.

Everybody Has Their Story to Tell

Yes, the stories in Taking Charge: Collective Stories on Aging Boldly, clearly show that everyone has their own story to tell, a personal life experience that just might provide a road map to the reader on how to age better and even living a longer and healthier life.

Like my fellow Age Beat colleagues, I will continue to bring my readers in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call the latest, most informative coverage of aging, medical and health-care issues you need to know about in future articles, even books.

The price of Taking Charge: Collective Stories on Aging Boldly is $20 (includes free shipping and handling). Just ask — I am glad to sign copies of your book. For purchasing information email, hweissri@aol.com.