Social Security, Medicare Are Solvent…at least for Now

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 16, 2017

Just days ago, a released annual federal report, the 2017 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, says the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs continue to work, are fiscally solvent, but future fixes will be needed to maintain their long-term actuarial balance.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) annual snap shot of the fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare, two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, released on July 13, is important to millions of beneficiaries. According to the federal agency, in 2017 over 62 million Americans (retired, disabled and survivors) received income from programs administered by SSA, receiving approximately $955 billion in Social Security benefits.

The Good News

The trustee’s report projects that Social Security will be financially solvent until 2034 (unchanged from last year), after which SSA can pay 77 percent of benefits if there are no changes in the program. The 269-page report also noted that the Medicare Trust Fund for hospital care has sufficient funds to cover its obligations until 2029, one year longer than projected last year, then 88 percent afterward if nothing is done to strengthen the system’s finances

The trustees report says that there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year — and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Social Security Administration efficiently manages its entitlement program, says the trustee report. The cost of $6.2 billion to administer to program in 2016 was a very low 0.7 percent of the total agency’s expenditures.

The trustee’s project a 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security beneficiaries in 2018, the largest increase in years. In addition, Medicare Part B premiums will also remain unchanged next year. Most beneficiaries pay a monthly premium of $134 (this amount increases for those with higher incomes.)

Social Security is “Stable and Healthy for Now”

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security (NCPSSM), the recently released trustee’s report confirms that the federal entitlement program is “stable and healthy for now,” while acknowledging there will be future challenges if “corrective action is not taken.”

“Forty percent of seniors (and 90 percent unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income. The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2 percent will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. Under these circumstances, any benefit cuts (including raising the retirement age to 70 as some propose) would be truly painful for our nation’s retirees,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO, in a statement responding to the release of the federal report.

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age,” warns Max Richtman. “We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans,” he says.

Depending on what the final Senate health bill looks like, the legislation could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years, say Richtman. “The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare. We advocate innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual-eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health,” he says.

Safeguarding and Expanding Social Security Benefits

In a statement, Richard Fiesta, Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Alliance of Retired Americans, notes that the Trustees project that the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust will be fully solvent until 2028, five years longer than last year’s report. “In light of this data, it makes no sense that the President’s FY 2018 budget seeks to cut Social Security Disability Insurance funding by $63 billion,” he says.

Despite the trustees’ strong report, Fiesta believes that improvements can be made that would benefit all workers and retirees. His organization supports safeguarding and expanding Social Security benefits, providing a more accurate formula for cost-of-living adjustments, and lifting the cap on earnings for the wealthiest Americans.

Fiesta adds, “reining in the prices of prescription drugs would strengthen Medicare for the future and reduce costs to retirees.”

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, in a statement, calls for bipartisan action in Congress and the Trump administration to ensure the strong fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare programs. “Social Security should remain separate from the budget. Medicare can improve if we reduce the overall cost of health care, rather than impose an age tax, and if we lower prescription costs, instead of giving tax breaks to drug and insurance companies,” she says.

Finally, in a statement, Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works, also chairing the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, says that this year’s trustee’s report clearly indicates that the nation can fully afford an expanded Social Security. Altman says that polling continues to show that Americans support expanding the program’s benefits.

Altman believes the Social Security program can solve the nation’s “looming retirement income crisis, the increasing economic squeeze on middle-class families, and the perilous and growing income and wealth inequality.” So, when confronting these challenges, she says, “the question is not how can we afford to expand Social Security, but, rather, how can we afford not to expand it.”

Ensuring the Long-Term Solvency of Social Security

Those nearing retirement or retired will be assured existing Social Security benefits, promises the 2016 Republican Party Platform. “Of the many reforms being proposed, all options should be considered to preserve Social Security. As Republicans, we oppose tax increases and believe in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system,” says the Platform. Simply put, the GOP opposes the raising of payroll taxes on higher income taxpayers to stabilize or expand Social security and supports privatization, allowing Wall Street to control your Social Security benefits.

On the other hand, last year’s Democratic Party Platform opposed Social Security cuts, privatization or the weakening of the retirement program, along with GOP attempts to raise the retirement age, slash benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments, or reducing earned benefits. The Democratic Platform called for taxing people making above $250,000 will bring additional funding into the entitlement program.

Congressional gridlock has not blocked legislation from being introduced to fix the nation’s Social Security program. According to Social Security Works, over 20 Social Security expansion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate since 2015. Recently, the Social Security 2100 Act, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), has 162 House cosponsors —around 85 percent of all Democratic representatives. Similarly, around 90 percent of Senate Democrats are on record in favor of expanding, not cutting Social Security.

Many consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia notes that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.” With the Social Security and Medicare programs now on firm financial footing, it is now time for Congress to seriously consider legislative actions to ensure the longevity and expansion of these programs. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2018 elections, we’ll see if Social Security is truly “a third rail.”

GOP Trial Balloon Called “Trojan Horse”

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 16, 2017

In previous years, the GOP leadership, now controlling both chambers of Congress, pushed legislative proposals to eliminate Social Security and Medicare by privatizing these programs. These attempts were clearly visible for all to see. But, we are in new political times with a GOP White House seeking the destruction of these programs, too, but as some say through the back door.

According to an Associated Press story, published on April 10, 2017, as the Trump Administration begins to learn from its failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, tax code reform is now on its agenda. One trial balloon, being floated by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump Administration, would eliminate the mandated payroll tax that all American workers pay to fund Social Security and Medicare.

“This approach would give a worker earning $60,000 a year an additional $3,720 in take-home pay, a possible win that lawmakers could highlight back in their districts even though it would involve changing the funding mechanism for Social Security, according to a lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to discuss the proposal without disrupting early negotiations,” says Writers Josh Boak and Stephen Ohlemacher in their Associated Press story.

Currently, about 163 million American workers pay Social Security taxes and 59 million retired and/or disabled persons collect monthly benefits. About one family in four receive income from Social Security. The nation’s social insurance and welfare program is a “pay-as-you-go-program.” Today’s workers support the program by paying their taxes into the program and the money flows back out to the program’s current beneficiaries.

GOP Stealth Attack on Social Security

Responding to the GOP trial balloon, in her blog post published last Tuesday on the Huffington Post, a politically liberal American online news web site, Contributor Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works called the GOP trial balloon “a Trojan horse”, noting that “It appears to be a gift, in the form of middle class tax relief, but would, if enacted, lead to the destruction of working Americans’ fundamental economic security.”

If President Trump proposes “the Trojan horse, it would be the newest shot in the ongoing Republican war against Social Security. That war has failed so far. The American people overwhelmingly support Social Security because they appreciate that it provides working families with basic economic security when wages are lost as the result of death, disability, or old age. And it does so extremely efficiently, securely, fairly, and universally,” says Altman in her April 11, 2017 blog post.

According to Altman’s blog posting, after Trump and GOP lawmaker have suffered legislative defeats in their “frontal attacks” against Social Security to eliminate the programs “it appears they are contemplating a “stealth attack instead.” She noted, “In the 1980s, Republicans, who had long tried but failed to cut government programs directly, discovered a new tactic. They realized that they could undermine government and eventually force cuts to spending by cutting taxes and, in their words, starve the beast. Now, Trump is making plans to use that same tactic against Social Security.”

“Not only would the Trump proposal starve Social Security of dedicated revenue, it would ultimately destroy it. Social Security is not a government handout. It is wage insurance that the American people earn, as part of their compensation, and, indeed, pay for with deductions from their pay,” observed Altman.

Altman warns that GOP lobbyist’s proposal to eliminate the payroll tax to fund Social Security is consistent with Trump’s previous actions. “No one should be fooled by Trump’s campaign promise not to cut Social Security. Before he became a candidate, he called it a Ponzi scheme and advocated privatizing it. He chose, as his vice president, Mike Pence, who complained that the Bush privatization proposal didn’t go far enough, fast enough. As President, he has chosen a staunch opponent of Social Security, Mick Muvaney, as his budget director, and another staunch opponent, Tom Price, as Secretary of Health and Human Services (one of Social Security’s trustees.), she said.

In an email urging recipients to sign a petition to protect Social Security’s funding [the payroll tax], Michael Phelan, Deputy Director of Social Security Works noted, “For decades, Republicans in Washington and Wall Street bankers have told us that Social Security is going broke―even though Social Security has a $2.8 trillion surplus and can pay out 100% of benefits for the next 17 years and over 75% of benefits owed after that.” He warns the “Republican’s tax plans might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. By starving Social Security of funding, they could finally receive their wish―replacing Social Security’s guaranteed benefit with unstable Wall Street retirement plans.”

The “Great Wisdom” of a Payroll Contribution Tax

Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, says, “It’s no surprise that the GOP lobbyist who suggested this dangerous idea and remained anonymous. After all, who would want to own up to an idea that would trigger the collapse of the most successful government program in U.S. history?”

Richtman adds, “Peddling this kind of scheme reminds me of President George W. Bush’s 2005 privatization proposal. Only in this case, the risk factor shifts from the uncertainty of Wall Street to benefit cuts that will almost certainly occur when Social Security is forced to compete for government funding with other discretionary programs. There was great wisdom in President Roosevelt’s plan for funding Social Security through a dedicated payroll tax. As President Roosevelt said, ‘We put those payroll contributions there to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions…No damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, sees an uphill battle to formalize the tax policy to eliminate the payroll contribution to fund Social Security. “I don’t think Trump will be able to eliminate or reduce the Social Security tax because of its dire consequences for the program itself. The program is very popular with the general public and many recipients count it as their sole support. Republicans will get killed if they try to do this. It is not a viable option now or anytime in the near future.”

When Trump releases his tax code reform proposal, aging advocates must remember that the devil is in the details. Read the proposal thoroughly with a fine-tooth comb

Republicans Begin a Legislative Assault on Social Security

Published in Woonsocket Call on December 11, 2016

With the dust just settling after last month’s heated presidential 2016 election, the GOP took over the White House and maintained control of both chambers of Congress. With almost 40 days left before Obama leaves office, an emboldened GOP calls for the repeal of Obmacare and the privatization of Medicare. That said, fixing Social Security is now on their short list of domestic policies to address.

Last Thursday, the long-anticipated political skirmish over how to reform and ensure the fiscal solvency of Social Security began with Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (TX-03) introducing legislation to drastically overhaul the nation’s most popular social insurance program.

In the Eyes of the Beholder

“For years I’ve talked about the need to fix Social Security so that our children and grandchildren can count on it to be there for them just like it’s there for today’s seniors and individuals with disabilities,” Johnson said in his statement introducing H.R. 6439, the Social Security Reform Act of 2016. “My commonsense plan is the start of a fact-based conversation about how we do just that. I urge my colleagues to also put pen to paper and offer their ideas about how they would save Social Security for generations to come,” he said.

Johnson’s legislative proposal seeks to overhaul the nation’s Social Security program by increasing the retirement age from 67 to 69, this change impacting people born in 1968 who will begin retiring in the mid-2030s. The basic Social Security benefit formula would also become less generous for beneficiaries… except for the poorest beneficiaries. The annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), using a Chained-Weighted CPI, would put the brakes on generous COLA increases. COLA’s would be cut for those earning over $85,000.

Circling the Wagons to Protect Social Security

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi came out swing in a statement after Johnson’s threw his bill into the legislative hopper, charging that it would “inflict deep cuts in Social Security benefits.”

“Apparently nothing upsets House Republicans like the idea of hard-working people getting to enjoy a secure and dignified retirement. While Speaker Ryan sharpens his knives for Medicare, Chairman Johnson’s bill is an alarming sign that Republicans are greedily eying devastating cuts to Americans’ Social Security benefits as well,” Pelosi said.

She warned, “Although current retirees and those close to retirement will receive their Social Security benefits, changes are looming with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. For younger generations all benefit cut options are expected to be put on the table.”

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline calls Johnson’s legislative proposal a “travesty,” warning that it would “destroy Social Security as we know it by slashing the critical benefits that millions of seniors rely on to live their retirement years with dignity.”

According to Cicilline, the last time Republicans tried to eliminate Social Security during the Administration of President George W. Bush, the American people were outraged and rejected it.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare views Johnson’s Social Security fix legislation introduced as the 114th Congress is wrapping up, “the first salvo in the ‘War on the Working Class.’”

Rep. Johnson will no doubt re-introduce his bill in the next Congress, he predicts.

According to Richtman, Johnson’s legislative proposal cuts Social Security benefits by one third while raising the retirement age from 67 to 69. It seeks to control costs by changing the benefit-computation formula in a way that cuts benefit amounts. Finally, it cuts COLAs, too.

Richtman charges that this Social Security reform proposal would “irreparably harm the nearly 60 million Americans who currently depend on Social Security as well as future beneficiaries.”

“President-elect Trump will have a veto pen. Now is the time for Mr. Trump to re-affirm his campaign promise “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare. So far, he has been uncharacteristically silent on this vital issue. I promise that we will hold him accountable,” says Richtman.

“No one voted for massive cuts to Social Security, nor to end the program as we know it,” says Nancy Altman, founding co-director of Social Security Works, in a response to Johnson’s legislative proposal to radically change Social Security. “The Johnson plan would gradually but inexorably turn Social Security from a program that replaces wages to one that produces essentially one flat benefit, independent of how much a worker contributed,” she says.

“With Republicans in full control of the federal government, these cuts have a real chance of being passed into law. Trump needs to immediately reassure the American people that he will keep his campaign promise and veto this awful bill. He should tweet that immediately,” adds Altman.

The presidential debates and the platforms of the GOP and Democratic party reveal a stark difference as how to each party will fix the ailing Social Security program. Now is not the time to put Social Security on the chopping block. Congress must come together to hammer out bipartisan approaches to ensure the fiscal solvency for the next 100 years. .