House Subcommittee Panel Makes Call for Expanding, Strengthening Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 23, 2019

So it goes, to the victor goes the spoils. Over a week ago, House Democratic leadership, now controlling the legislative agenda, pushed to strengthen and expand benefits for the nation’s Social Security program.

With the 116th Congress kicking off on Jan. 2, 2019, as the majority party, the Democrats took over the legislative reins of the House of Representatives from the Republicans, who had held the majority and legislative control of the lower chamber since 2011. Now being in power allows Democratic leadership to control which bills reach the floor for a vote. In this new Congress, legislation reflecting the GOP’s philosophy as to how to fix Social Security (by privatizing the retirement program, cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, even reducing cost-of-living adjustments or lowering earned benefits) would be blocked by Democratic leadership.

Congress Puts Spotlight on Social Security

Last week, Social Security got a full and fair hearing before the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.

Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairing the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, held a series of panel hearings, calling for the strengthening and protecting the nation’s Social Security program.

“What we’re addressing in these hearings is that Congress hasn’t paid enough attention to Social Security to make sure it’s actuarially sound,” he said, in his opening statement for the March 12th hearing, entitled “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Enhancing Social Security to Strengthen the Middle Class.”

According to Larson, more than 62 million Americans are already receiving Social Security benefits.

“We have a responsibility to act to strengthen this program for them,” he added. “Not to act will amount to a 25 percent benefit cut come 2034. In other words, for the person who was making $50,000 a year throughout their working career, they would actually be living at a poverty level in terms of a benefit that they would receive after these cuts,” he said.

“Not only do we need to work to protect the program, but we need a solution to make the program, as the actuaries say, “sustainably solvent,” or in other words, making sure Social Security remains strong throughout this century, not just for seniors, but for millennials too,” added Larson.

Joan Ruff, AARP’s chair of the Board, testified, saying, “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected, guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have. It is the foundation of retirement security that keeps millions of older Americans out of poverty and allows them to live independently. But Social Security also provides some measure of economic security for families who face a loss of income because of the disability or the death of a wage earner. We often do not think of Social Security as a family income protection plan—yet that is exactly what it is.”

Other witnesses testified on the importance of Social Security benefits and how it provides the middle class with economic security, especially women and minorities.

One day later, Larson convened a second hearing entitled, “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Benefit Enhancements.” The purpose of holding the hearings, said Larson, was to “shine a bright light on all of the proposals to secure Social Security that will help the American people.”

Democrats Unveil Fix for Social Security

Larson also used the subcommittee panel hearing as a bully pulpit to promote his legislation, H.R. 860, “The Social Security 2100 Act.” Specifically, the bill’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. Larson’s bill would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients would receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

At this time, H.R. 860 has 203 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin). Passage of the legislation requires only a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass.

But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it reach the Senate floor for consideration.

Larson’s first two hearings are the first in a series of hearings on Protecting and Improving Social Security. One more hearing will be scheduled with the date to be determined. After these hearings, H.R. 860 will most likely be marked up by the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and full Committee before it heads to the House floor for a vote.

Enhancing Social Security Benefits

Lead-off witness Max Richtman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), restated his aging advocacy group’s support for Larson’s Social Security bill, H.R. 860, which enhances the retirement programs benefits and ensures its long-term solvency.

“Since the program’s creation 84-years ago, Social Security has been – and is- and enormously successful program which is essential to the retirement of the vast majority of Americans. While [the] benefits are modest, Social Security is still the single largest source of income for retired American’s. To ensure the program’s continued success, it is vitally important that long-term solvency be restored, and that Social Security benefits be improved to meet the needs of all Americans,” says Richtman.

Social Security Advocates joined Richtman at the witness table, too.

Elizabeth Marafino, president of the Connecticut Alliance of Retired Americans (from Larson’s home state), stated that Social Security is important to older Connecticut residents, making this statement more personal by sharing how her maternal grandmother, mother of six and a widow at the age of fifty, was glad to receive her husband’s social security check because it literally kept her out of the poor house.

Marafino noted, “The traditional three-legged stool of pension, personal savings, and social security is deteriorating. The ‘pension’ leg of the stool has been disappearing, eroding retirement security and making Social Security even more important. Along with the high cost of prescription drugs putting pressure on seniors’ finances, (these factors make) the need to increase Social Security benefits urgent.”

Abigail Zapote, Director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement, testified that boosting Social Security benefits is crucial to the Latino population, whose average Social Security checks are lower than other Americans. “Latinos depend on Social Security more than other groups because they tend to have lower lifetime income, longer life expectancies, higher incidence of disability and larger families,” she said.

Enhancing benefits can help older women, too, testified Joan Entmacher, a Senior Fellow at the
National Academy of Social Insurance. “Social Security is the foundation of retirement security for most Americans, but it is especially important for women,” she says, noting that women rely more on their Social Security checks than men do, even though their Social Security benefits are lower. She pointed out that the average retirement benefit for women is only 80 percent of men, making women even more reliant on Social Security, she said.

“Adjusting the regular benefit formula to make it more progressive would increase benefits for all workers, but lower lifetime earners, including women and people of color, would receive the largest percentage increases,” says Entmacher. To boost retirement benefits, she calls for the creation of caregiver credits (the majority of caregivers are women) who take off from their jobs to care for family members.

Finally, Donna Butts, the Executive Director of Generations United, testified that Social Security was important for all generations. ““For more than 80 years Social Security has been the premier example of a policy designed to secure and insure the well-being of individuals and their families. “For many it makes the difference between putting food on the table and deciding whether grandma or junior eat tonight,” she says.

The Beginning of an Honest Policy Debate

According to a NCPSSM blog posted on March 15th, “Republicans on the subcommittee, now in the minority for the first time in 8 years, appeared to be less combative than in the past.”

“This was a richer dialogue about the philosophical differences about Social Security than we’ve had in a long time,” observed National Committee legislative director, Dan Adcock in the blog posting. “There was a quest to figure out what each side could live with,” he says.

Stay tuned.

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GAO Study Reports New Trends Push Older Women into Poverty

Published in Pawtucket Times, March 7, 2014

Following on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week on March 5, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a Congressional spotlight on the alarming increase of older Americans becoming impoverished.  The GAO policy analysts concluded that a growing number of the nation’s elderly, especially women and minorities, could fall into poverty due to lower incomes associated with declining marriage rates and the higher living expenses that individuals bear.

As many as 48 percent of older Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. “While many gains have been made over the years to reduce poverty, too many seniors still can’t afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and medicines,” said Aging Committee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL).

Senate Aging Committee Looks at Income Security for Elders

Policy experts told Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that millions of seniors have been spared from abject poverty thanks to federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, and food stamps.  The testimony contrasted with the picture painted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) earlier this week, who produced a report that labeled the federal government’s five-decade long war on poverty a failure.

Appearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Patricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, stressed the importance of federal anti-poverty programs.

“Between 1966 and 2011, the share of seniors living in poverty fell from more than 28 percent to about 9 percent, with the steepest drop occurring in the decade immediately following the start of the Medicare program,” said Neuman.  “The introduction of Medicare, coupled with Social Security, played a key role in lifting seniors out of poverty.”

Neuman’s remarks were echoed by Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law              Center, who credited food stamps, unemployment insurance and Meals on Wheels, along with Social Security, for dramatically reducing poverty among seniors.  The report was highly critical of many programs designed to help the poor and elderly saying they contribute to the “poverty trap.”  Ryan and other House lawmakers have long proposed capping federal spending and turning Medicaid, food stamps and a host of other programs for the poor into state block grants.

Older Women and Pension Benefits

GAO’s Barbara Bovbjerg also brought her views to the Senate Select Committee on Aging hearing. Bovbjerg, Managing Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues, testified that the trends in marriage, work, and pension benefits have impacted the retirement incomes of older Americans.

Over the last five decades the composition of the American household has changed dramatically, stated Bovbjerg, noting that the proportion of unmarried individuals has increased steadily as couples have chosen to marry at ever-later ages and as divorce rates have risen.  “This is important because Social Security is not only available to workers but also to spouses and survivors.  The decline in marriage and the concomitant rise in single parenthood have been more pronounced among low-income, less educated individuals and some minorities,” she says.

As marriage and workforce patterns changed, so has the nation’s retirement system, adds Bovbjerg.  Since 1990, employers have increasingly turned away from traditional defined benefit pensions to defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, she says, this ultimately shifting risk to individual employees and making it more likely they will receive lump sum benefits rather than annuities.

These trends have affected retirement incomes, especially for women and minorities, says Bovbjerg, that is fewer women today receive Social Security spousal and survivor benefits than in the past; most qualify for benefits on their own work history. While this shift may be positive, especially for those women with higher incomes, unmarried elderly women with low levels of lifetime earnings are expected to get less from Social Security than any other demographic group.

According to Bovbjerg, these trends have also affected household savings Married households are more likely to have retirement savings, but the majority of single-headed households have none. Obviously, single parents in particular tend to have fewer resources available to save for retirement during their working years.  With Defined Contribution pension plans becoming the norm for most, and with significant numbers not having these benefits, older Americans may well have to rely increasingly on Social Security as their primary or perhaps only source of retirement income.

Inside the Ocean State

Although the GAO report findings acknowledge a gender-based wage gap that pushes older woman into poverty, Maureen Maigret, policy consultant for the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island and Coordinator of the Rhode Island Older Woman’s Policy Group, observes that this inequity has been around since the 1970s when she chaired a legislative commission studying pay equity. “Progress in closing the gender wage gap has stagnated since 2000 with the wage ratio hovering around 76.5 percent”, she says.

GAO’s recent findings on gender based differences in poverty rates are consistent with what Maigret found researching the issue for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island in 2010.  She found that some of the differences in the Ocean State can be attributed to the fact that older women are far less likely to be married than older men.  Almost three times as many older women are widowed when compared to men.

Maigret says that her research revealed that older women in Rhode Island are also less likely to live in family households and almost twice as likely as older men to live alone. Of those older women living alone or with non family members an estimated one out of five was living in poverty. For Rhode Island older women in non-family households living alone, estimated median income in 2009 was 85% that of male non-family householders living alone ($18,375 vs. $21,540).

Finally, Maigret’s report findings indicate that around 11.3 percent of older Rhode Island women were living below the federal poverty level as compared to 7.3 percent of older men in the state. Older women’s average Social Security benefit was almost 30 percent less than that of older men and their earnings were only 58 percent that of older men’s earnings.

             There is no getting around peoples’ fears about outliving their savings becoming a reality if they live long enough,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “One thing that the latest statistics reveals [including the GAO report] is the critical role Social Security plays when it comes to the ability of many seniors to meet monthly expenses. Social Security keeps about 38 percent of  Rhode Islanders age 65 and older out of poverty, according to a new study from the AARP Public Policy Institute.”

“Nationally, figures jump off the page,” Connell added. “Without Social Security benefits, 44.4 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the official poverty line; all else being equal; with Social Security benefits, only 9.1 percent do, she says, noting that these benefits lift 15.3 million elderly Americans — including 9.0 million women — above the poverty line.”

“Just over 50 percent of Rhode Islanders age 65 and older rely on Social Security for at least half of their family income—and nearly 24 percent rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their family income” states Connell.

             “Seniors trying to meet the increasing cost of utilities, prescription drugs and groceries would be desperate without monthly Social Security benefits they worked hard for and planned on. As buying power decreases, protecting Social Security becomes more important than ever. Older people know this; younger people should be aware of it and become more active in saving for retirement. Members of Congress need to remain aware of this as well,” adds Connell.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, agrees with Maigret that older women in Rhode Island are already at greater risk of poverty and economic security than older men.   “This [GAO] report highlights several trends that make it increasingly important to improve women’s earnings today so that they are economically secure in retirement.  Among the “policy to-do list” is shrinking the wage gap, eliminating occupational segregation, and raising the minimum wage. State and federal proposals to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more women than men, demonstrating the importance of this debate to women’s economic security today and tomorrow.”

House Speaker Gordon Fox is proud that the General Assembly in the last two legislation sessions voted to raise minimum wage to its current level of $8 per hour.  That puts Rhode Island at the same level as neighboring Massachusetts, and we far surpass the federal minimum wage of $7.25, he said.  He says he will carefully consider legislation that has been introduced to once again boost the minimum wage.

“Bridging this gap is not only the right thing to do to ensure that women are on the same financial footing as men, but it also makes economic sense”, says Rep. David N. Cicilline.  At the federal level, the  Democratic Congressman has supported the ‘When Women Succeed, America Succeeds’ economic agenda that would address issues like the minimum wage, paycheck fairness, and access to quality and affordable child care. “Tackling these issues is a step toward helping women save and earn a secure retirement, but we also have to ensure individuals have a safety net so they can live with dignity in their retirement years,” says Cicilline.

With Republican Congressman Ryan in a GOP-controlled House, captured by the Tea Party, leading the charge to dismantle the federal government’s 50 year war on poverty, the casualties of this ideological skirmish if he succeeds will be America’s seniors.  Cutting the safety net that these programs created will make economic insecurity in your older years a very common occurrence.

.             Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.