Social Security: Don’t fix what isn’t broke


It doesn’t make sense to target Social Security for deficit reduction because it’s not part of the deficit.

NEWCASTLE — Remember how President Bush began his second term with a plan to “privatize” Social Security? Imagine where millions of us would be today if Social Security were a pension plan based primarily on stock market investments.

Well, we dodged that bullet, but the program that transformed American society with retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, survivors’ benefits, and a host of other essential services is about to undergo yet another attack.

In the name of deficit reduction, not itself a bad goal, there’s a proposal to create a fast-track commission to study so-called entitlement programs. What does “fast-track” mean? It means discussion is limited and amendments are prohibited, creating an undemocratic process that’s hidden from you and me.

And, if a fast-track commission is created, the deck will be stacked against Social Security. Already, foes of social insurance, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, are predicting its imminent demise. Parade Magazine recently ran an article with the scary title, “Can We Save Social Security?”

The use of a hasty and undemocratic fast-track procedure would be unprecedented. Since 1935, Social Security legislation has always had the benefit of full hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and unlimited debate and opportunity for amendments in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

It just doesn’t make sense to attack Social Security in the name of deficit reduction; it’s not part of the deficit. The 2009 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees, published May 12, 2009, stated that Social Security ran a surplus of $180 billion last year with a reserve of $2.4 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office, in its August 2009 forecast, said that full benefits can continue to be paid until 2043.

There is ample time for Congress to review options for adjusting the Social Security system through the usual legislative process. There is time to create a well-rounded, balanced commission that recruits members from business, labor, and the general public. And makes recommendations, not edicts.

But Social Security’s opponents have managed to convince too many Americans that the program is wasteful and in a terminal state. Unwarranted panic allows Social Security’s opponents to stage this stealth attack.

As the program’s 75th anniversary approaches, it’s helpful to recall the reason for Social Security’s original enactment.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe wrote last June in a letter to the Frances Perkins Center: “As the chief champion and architect of the Social Security Act, which established not only Social Security but also the Unemployment Insurance program, Frances Perkins demonstrated unparalleled vision, courage, and determination that provided us with some of the strongest federal programs ever”

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins herself said in a radio speech in 1935, “We cannot be satisfied merely with makeshift arrangements, which will tide us over the present emergencies. We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future.”

That goal has been met. Today, as we struggle to rise from the depths of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we can thank Social Security for helping to save our economy from collapse.

While trillions of dollars were lost in 401(k) and other pension accounts, Social Security remained dependable. Its guaranteed payments helped to fill in for lost earnings. The purchasing power those benefits are keeping stores busy and people employed.

More than 52 million people will get monthly benefits this year. Wounded soldiers and their spouses and children receive Social Security benefits, as well as the families of soldiers who have died for their country.

The mystery is, in the face of proof that the Social Security system benefits all of us, why would Congress consider reducing it? Instead, let’s get out the drums and bugles and celebrate this great American tradition. It deserves our support, not death by a thousand cuts.

BARBARA BURT December 11, 2009


Barbara Burt is executive director of the Frances Perkins Center, which advocates for social justice and economic security.

Copyright © 2009 MaineToday Media, Inc.

[An OpEd published in the Portland, Maine, Sunday Telegram]