For many years, the smug elites of Wall Street have peddled “entitlement reform” as a sly euphemism for cutting Social Security. And Washington’s political elites, including President Obama, bought into the propaganda. Social Security, not to mention Medicare and Medicaid, was driving the nation into ruinous debt if government did not act to curb this venerable New Deal program. Think tanks and editorial writers, political reporters and TV talkers, witlessly embraced the big lie and promoted it as indisputable truth.
Except this self-righteous crusade for fiscal discipline failed to persuade the American people—the wage earners who pay the FICA deductions on every weekly paycheck and expect to get their money back as the retirement benefits promised by law. For many folks, the deal smelled like another Washington swindle. The people had it right, the experts were wrong. This time, the people are going to prevail.
This summer, though virtually ignored by the news media, the Democratic Party in Congress has launched a smart, spirited counter-offensive on behalf of Social Security. In the House and Senate, eight differing measures have been introduced by various Democrats to expand Social Security benefits to correct injustices for women and low-wage workers and to increase FICA payments for the wealthiest wage earners who make more than $400,000 a year. Instead of attacking Social Security, “entitlement reform” now takes on an opposite meaning—improving workplace fairness in this much-loved federal program and insuring its solvency for the next seventy-five years.
This may sound like a minor event, since none of these measures will be enacted anytime soon. But it reflects a major political shift underway in the reigning values of Democrats—a reawakening of the reform spirit that used to be the mainstream party’s identity, and another important way of confronting the society’s scandalous inequalities of income and wealth.
The Democratic president, one observes, is significantly absent and silent. Obama has made fine speeches about inequality, but he actually stood on the wrong side of the Social Security debate. Back in 2010, he made common cause with the anti-entitlement case of billionaire Pete Peterson, who recruited scores of influential policy types by dispensing generous grants. Obama opted for “austerity” economics and actively sought a bipartisan deal on trimming Social Security.
Some progressive voices in Congress, like Senator Bernie Sanders, Representatives Raul Grijalva, Keith Ellison and John Conyers said, No, this is wrong. But a lot of Democrats were silent. They may not have been for cutting Social Security, but they also didn’t oppose it. Back home, however, they encountered fierce resistance from their constituents. Ironically, Pete Peterson’s millions probably helped awaken the people to the threat. The more Peterson’s wealth financed noisy lobbying of the governing elites, the more he mobilized the anger of common folks.
It now appears that reforming Social Security in positive ways has once again become a mainstream idea of the Democratic Party, aligned with the party’s own base and public opinion regardless of party. Roughly half of the House Democratic Caucus has signed as co-sponsors of the strongest and most generous legislation, introduced by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Linda Sanchez of California. Their measure would gradually eliminate the cap on Social Security deductions now at $117,000 incomes. The bill would boost benefits for all Social Security recipients by approximately $70 a month, targeted especially to help low- and middle-income families.