Last month, I was fortunate to be part of a group of 100 senior citizen community leaders from around the country who attended the White House Senior Summit. As a retired educator, it was really important to me that I get the opportunity to hear what the Obama administration is doing to protect Social Security and to hear concerns that many have on the future of these important programs. I’m happy to report that the concerns and needs of our senior citizens are being listened to by this administration.
For over 70 years Social Security has been America’s most successful social insurance program. It provides a rock-solid lifeline for millions of Americans — for more than half of senior citizens in this country Social Security is their only means of support. In a time of economic uncertainty, where pensions and 401(K)s for retirees are becoming a rare commodity, Social Security has remained stable.
In spite of all of this, we are hearing more and more politicians call for cuts to the program. The idea that budget cuts have to be tied to cuts in benefits for Social Security is wrong. Social Security did not contribute to the federal deficit and shouldn’t be “borrowed” from in the form of reduced benefits or coverage. Unfortunately, there will be pressure from both sides to include cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in budget discussions.
Two budget plans in particular pose a substantial threat to these programs. During the briefing at the White House, I was very pleased to hear that the administration is firmly against the budget plan presented by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.
The “Ryan plan” as it is sometimes known, would put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block by privatizing the program, cutting benefits and breaking Social Security into block grants. Given the track record of Wall Street, why would we want to gamble the lifeline of millions of disabled and retired workers on the stock market? Social Security was created in a time of financial crisis as a system apart from Wall Street for precisely these reasons. The Ryan plan would also privatize Medicare, putting insurance companies between seniors and their doctors while raising out-of-pocket costs. Surveys have shown that some seniors are already spending more than a quarter of their Social Security checks to cover out-of-pocket Medicare costs. Decreasing benefits while increasing costs would be disastrous for many seniors.
In addition to the Ryan plan in the House, the Senate is floating a similar plan called the Simpson-Bowles plan.
While Simpson-Bowles is not as clearly partisan as the Ryan plan, it relies too heavily on benefit cuts to programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Included in this plan is a proposal to raise the retirement age to almost 70. In Maine, where wait staff, carpenters, loggers and many others work very physical jobs for most of their lives, the expectation that they can continue to work, or even find work, well into their late 60s is ridiculous.
Social Security and Medicare shouldn’t be the targets of “reform” that cuts vital services simply for purposes of balancing the budget. The debate in D.C. has far reaching implications for thousands of people back home, too.
We are now the oldest state in the country. Almost 300 thousand Mainers are beneficiaries of Social Security. These people are retirees, widows and widowers, disabled workers, spouses and children. All contribute to Maine’s economy and, for many, the benefits from the program can mean the difference between retiring in poverty or with a livable income.
I am glad the Obama administration is listening and willing to fight to protect these programs from reckless cuts. Seniors are not living “high on the hog.” For over half of us, Social Security is our only means of support. I believe in life with dignity from birth until death. I hope our senators realize the importance of these programs and vote against any budget that includes cuts that undermine the social insurance principles that make these programs so popular and effective.
Sheryl Lee is a retired educator from Portland and a member of the Maine People’s Alliance and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.