I’m running for U.S. Senate because Mainers need a strong advocate for retirement security. I met an elderly woman on the campaign trail in Mount Vernon this winter who told me she was struggling, and her Social Security checks were not stretching from one month to another. She needs Congress to help out, and she’s hardly alone.
At least 24,000 Maine seniors today are forced to sacrifice adequate meals for medicine or vice versa. I support expanding Social Security benefits in a responsible way to make sure retired Mainers don’t face hunger or lose out on medicines they need. In the 21st century, there’s no excuse for letting Social Security recipients starve to pay for corporate tax breaks. Expanding benefits is the right thing to do, both morally and economically.
There’s no guarantee that it will happen. Depending on who controls Congress after Nov. 4, we could see a lot of Social Security changes being pushed through, for better or worse. The people of Maine deserve a public discussion about how their elected leaders will vote on those changes.
The fiscally responsible way to expand benefits is to make sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share into the system. Right now, the payroll tax that funds Social Security only applies to the first $113,700 of income. That means millionaires and even billionaires pay the same amount into Social Security as someone earning $113,700. I support scrapping that cap entirely and making sure everyone pays their fair share, regardless of how many lobbyists they know.
The Republican Party, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has other ideas. He has pushed for Social Security privatization, raising the retirement age and a new formula for calculating the cost of goods called “chained CPI” that would keep benefits low.
A quick look at the numbers shows how much damage this could do in Maine. According to the Social Security Administration, Social Security provided benefits to 314,392 Maine residents in 2012 — nearly 24 percent of our population. That same year, the average Social Security benefit was $12,691.
My opponent in this election, Republican Susan Collins, would vote to put Mitch McConnell in charge if Republicans control the Senate next year. That would likely mean a big push for Social Security cutbacks. We can forget hearing about expanding benefits.
Collins has sided with McConnell on retirement issues before. In 2011 she voted for a Republican budget proposal that would have cut $624 million from the Social Security Administration, undoubtedly leading to staff furloughs and lost services. The current controversy over closing offices in rural areas has come about because of budget cuts Congress chose to make that she supported.
In addition to scrapping the cap, there are plenty of fiscally responsible ways to expand benefits rather than cut back. I support the RAISE Act recently introduced by Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Patty Murray, D-Washington, which increases Social Security benefits for multiple recipient groups through a modest two percent payroll tax on earnings over $400,000, with the threshold wage-indexed after 2015.
This is the kind of sensible plan Mainers need to make sure they get the benefits they deserve. I hope to see Sen. Collins support it in the weeks ahead. If Mitch McConnell is calling the shots in the Senate next year, you can bet the RAISE Act won’t even get a hearing.
This debate is important to seniors all across Maine who are struggling right now, but it’s also important to the next generation. Political games in Washington are creating an emerging retirement crisis. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change things, but we need fresh leadership with courage and vision to talk about expanding Social Security benefits with fair funding solutions — not benefit cuts and service reductions that hurt our communities.
Cutting Social Security, the most successful insurance program in our nation’s history, is not a viable or responsible way to reduce the debt. Rather than taking from people who have spent a lifetime paying their taxes and giving to their country, Congress should ensure that the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share and expand benefits for those who need them. Seniors shouldn’t have to go hungry or skip their medication in the most prosperous nation on Earth.
Shenna Bellows is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. She was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine from 2005 to 2013.