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Home Publications Op-Eds & Columns Are The Politicians Stealing Your Social Security?

Are The Politicians Stealing Your Social Security?

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Dean Baker
Truthout, September 27, 2010

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That’s the question that people should be asking their current or would-be representatives in Congress. With the huge baby boom cohort at the edge of retirement, there are few issues that will matter more directly to the people who will vote in the November elections.

The baby boomers are now mostly in their 50s or 60s. They have been especially hard hit by this downturn since this is the age cohort that was most vulnerable to seeing its wealth destroyed by the collapse of the housing bubble. Prior to the downturn, most baby boomers had accumulated substantial equity in their home, which was by far their primary source of wealth.

Nonetheless, many were still heavily leveraged, which meant they had much to lose when house prices plunged. For example, if a homeowner had a house worth $300,000 and owed $200,000, they would have $100,000 in equity. If the house price fell by one-third, as was the case in many areas during the collapse of the bubble, the house price would have fallen to $200,000, wiping out 100 percent of their equity.

Many baby boomers suffered this sort of loss of housing wealth in the last few years, eliminating much of the wealth that they expected to be available to them in retirement. Since few have traditional defined benefit pensions and most accumulated little, if anything, in 401(k) accounts, the vast majority of baby boomers will be reaching retirement with little other than their Social Security to support them.

The threat to cut Social Security should be taken seriously right now since two of the would be cutters are former Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission. Key figures in the congressional leadership of both parties have also indicated an interest in cutting Social Security.

This is especially outrageous, since the fact that the baby boom cohort is ill-prepared for retirement is a direct result of economic mismanagement by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The economic leadership of the last two decades set the economy on a course of bubble-driven growth that was bound to end in a disaster like the one we are currently experiencing. Now these very same people (all of whom still have their jobs) are targeting the one asset the baby boomers have left: the Social Security benefits that they paid for throughout their working career.

This attack on Social Security can be stopped if the public is aware of it. Specifically, they can refuse to vote for candidates who will not promise to protect Social Security from the Simpson-Bowles gang. There is a pledge being circulated by the Campaign for America’s Future that has been endorsed by 100 members of Congress and 13 candidates. The pledge simply commits to not cutting benefits or privatizing the program.

Given the simplicity of the statement, it is reasonable to assume that those who refuse to sign want to cut and/or privatize Social Security. Otherwise, it would not be difficult for members or candidates to tell voters that they stand behind the country’s most important social program. 

Many members of Congress have insisted that they can’t sign a pledge to protect Social Security because it could require them to reject the deficit commission’s recommendations, which will come after the election, even before they have seen it. While this could prove true, it is difficult to see any issue here.

If the deficit commission proposes to take away the Social Security benefits that workers have paid for, then it deserves to be rejected. There is nothing more than needs to be said. This is just the same as if the commission proposed defaulting on the national debt or selling Arkansas to a foreign country. These proposals, like cutting Social Security, are off the wall and have no place in the commission’s report. Congress should tell the members of the commission this in advance just in case they are misguided enough to want to go in this direction.

And, most importantly, if there are going to be cuts in Social Security, then this is an issue that the public must have its say. Let this be debated openly in the election and let the Social Security cutters make their case.

We don’t need secret commissions slinking around in basement buildings plotting to destroy Social Security. This is a democracy; the voters should decide the program’s future. 

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.

 

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