The dead-end debate over Social Security’s solvency has long stymied any discussion of how to improve the program for its participants. Now may be the time to break that logjam. Here’s a way that progressive lawmakers can help to do so.
Hard as it is to conceive, the last time a significant improvement was made for a broad swath of Social Security participants was almost 30 years ago. Enacted as part of the 1983 Amendment to the Social Security Act, those changes – four modest benefit boosts for widows and divorced spouses – were swamped in the news coverage by the larger effort to keep the program funded. Thus has it been ever since.
The result, tragically, is that the national conversation over Social Security has been bottled up in a never-ending wrangle over how best to “save” the program. If it’s true – per Clausewitz, Jack Dempsey, or Mao Zedong, depending on your source – that “a good offense is the best defense,” then perhaps it’s time for progressive friends of Social Security to go on the offensive.
I tend to dislike military metaphors, but the essence of that adage is that if you can’t win on the front where you’re currently engaged, you should open another front where you can. The facts as to Social Security’s solvency lend plenty of support to those who argue that it doesn’t need to be restructured, privatized, or phased out – that there’s nothing wrong with the program that rising wages, full employment, and a sane national health care system can’t cure.
But even opening that conversation is a loser, since when it comes to government “promises,” most people tend to believe the worst. Better, perhaps, to open a new front in the Social Security wars by demanding long-needed improvements in the program.
In Washington-political terms, I’m suggesting that progressive Democrats in Congress set the terms for any changes to Social Security, even is those changes are intended to strengthen the program for the long run. The terms are, first, that these must not include means-testing, downward adjustments to the benefits formula, a hike in the retirement age, or payroll tax carve-outs for private accounts. Second, they must include significant updating and improvement of Social Security benefits.
The fundamental problem with the current Social Security discussion is that it proceeds with hardly any reference to the needs of the people the program actually serves – and who are its owners by all rights, since their payroll taxes fund it. By demanding that any package of changes to Social Security contain significant benefit improvements, Democratic lawmakers can restore that linkage and frustrate conservative and center-right efforts to define the program as a fiscal problem rather than a social necessity. Read the rest of this entry →