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Happy 75th Birthday, Social Security | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Happy 75th Birthday, Social Security

On its 75th anniversary Social Security is once again under attack and so are its defenders

Those who would axe benefits are spreading myths designed to make you think there's a looming crisis. Well, it's just not true. 

The stark reality is that it will be several decades before the program encounters any financial problems. The program's trust fund will have a $4.3 trillion surplus by 2023, and can pay all its obligations for decades to come. And strengthening Social Security is easy—making the very rich pay their fair share by lifting the cap on contributions by the wealthy would allow the program to pay all its obligations indefinitely. 

So on this 75th anniversary, rather than fighting these Social Security-busters, we should celebrate what has been one of the nation’s best anti-poverty programs—a lifeline for millions of Americans—and a reminder of what effective government can do. Indeed the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that without Social Security benefits, over 45 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the poverty line. In contrast, with Social Security, only 9.7 percent are poor. (Still too many.) 

Social Security was a centerpiece of FDR’s New Deal reforms that helped this country recover from the Great Depression. These programs provided Americans a measure of dignity and hope and lasting security against the vicissitudes of the market and life. FDR therefore accomplished what the venerable New Deal historian David Kennedy says is the challenge now facing President Obama—a rescue from the current economic crisis which will also make us “more resilient to face those future crises that inevitably await us.”

This anniversary is also a reminder of how major social reforms in this country have come about—in fits and starts. As former Clinton adviser Paul Begala observed in a Washington Post  op-ed, “No self-respecting liberal today would support Franklin Roosevelt's original Social Security Act… If that version of Social Security were introduced today, progressives like me would call it cramped, parsimonious, mean-spirited and even racist. Perhaps it was all those things. But it was also a start. And for 74 years we have built on that start.”

Indeed when Social Security was first passed it left out African Americans and migrant workers. It was an imperfect piece of legislation but one that progressives built on to create the program we know today—a program like Medicare (which just marked its 45th anniversary last month)—that people feel an emotional connection to and will fight to protect. A new campaign from MoveOn and Campaign for America’s Future will tap into that energy, enlisting candidates to pledge their support to Social Security this election season—opposing any cuts in benefits, including raising the retirement age. And these candidates would be wise to pay attention: A just-released poll shows that 65% of voters reject raising the retirement age to 70.  And a separate AARP poll shows the vast majority oppose cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit, and 50% of non-retired adults are willing to pay more now in payroll taxes to ensure Social Security will be there when they retire.

Progressives can also mark this anniversary by not only rededicating themselves to defending Social Security, but also going on the offensive to expand and improve our social security system to provide economic security for everyone.

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