Unless retirement is on the horizon, Social Security isn't something most people think about. It's deemed something to worry about "someday" or, for the deeply cynical, something that "won't be around" when they're ready to retire.
In 2010, the retiree chapter of the Professional Staff Congress decided to challenge that way of thinking in the wake of amped up congressional attacks on earned benefit programs like Social Security, workers' compensation and public pensions. They formed the Social Safety Net Working Group to educate in-service PSC members about the value of the programs. And now, thanks to a $25,000 NYSUT Solidarity Grant, the group will share their valuable message statewide.
"I know from my students and children that they don't think about this," said Steven Leberstein, who co-chairs the workgroup with fellow PSC retiree John Highland. The PSC is NYSUT's affiliate representing more than 25,000 faculty and staff at CUNY colleges; the PSC retiree chapter is led by Bill Friedheim. "We decided the best first step would be to educate people about social safety net programs since many don't really understand what they are."
Using an in-house created pamphlet and a PowerPoint presentation developed by Labor Arts, a virtual labor museum, the group made presentations at CUNY college chapter meetings and hosted public forums in 2011 and 2013. The forums attracted hundreds and featured respected researchers, including economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and James Parrot of the Fiscal Policy Institute.
"The NYSUT grant has allowed us to hire a designer to professionally update and print the pamphlet and to travel around New York state for presentations," said Leberstein, who hopes to develop a two-hour train-the-trainer workshop so members can learn how to educate people within their communities about the threats to the social safety net.
Workgroup members are currently speaking at union meetings statewide to highlight their program and elicit interest. "We've been making the rounds at retiree meetings. We had representatives at the NYSUT Board meeting and we'll be speaking at the NYSUT Representative Assembly — anywhere we can get 10 minutes to talk about what we're doing," said Leberstein.
For a PDF of the workgroup's pamphlet, visit www.psc-cuny.org/snbrochure. For monthly email bulletins, or information about the workgroup, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following is an excerpt from the workgroup's pamphlet — Defending the Social Safety Net, A Call to Action. It was revised slightly for space.
Attacks on the safety net have been fierce, lavishly funded and sustained over the past 35 years. As workers, we must fight with a new urgency to keep and expand the benefits that we have earned.
The safety net is a set of federal, state and local programs, legislated and contractual, intended to provide protection against economic calamity. Without it, anyone facing old age, infirmity, unemployment, underemployment, disability, the death of a wage earner, below-poverty wages or contingent work runs the risk of being unable to fend for herself.
Born in struggle
Safety-net legislation and victories spiked in two periods of intensive grassroots organizing: the labor, social and political movements of the 1930s; and the civil rights, women's and other movements of the 1960s. Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and other programs from the New Deal date from the '30s; Medicare, Medicaid and other Great Society programs came out of the '60s. Every presidential administration, Democratic and Republican, from Roosevelt to Nixon, expanded the safety net.
And the struggle continues
Every president in the last 34 years, Republican and Democratic, from Reagan to Obama, has cut the safety net. President Obama presided over the only notable advance in this period: the expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
Social Security is the most important part of the safety net. Social Security benefits are essential to the well-being of the elderly. Indeed, most elderly Americans rely heavily, or even exclusively, on them.
For over three-quarters of a century, the Social Security system has been relatively healthy and working well. Employers and workers pay Social Security taxes into trust funds, which are accounts in the U.S. Treasury. Social Security revenue is not part of the federal budget and cannot by law be used for other purposes. Payment of Social Security benefits does not contribute to the federal deficit. Social Security is and always has been a self-sustaining program that does not use general tax revenues to pay for benefits.
The Republican Party opposed the original Social Security Act of 1935, and many Republicans have opposed Social Security ever since. Their attacks in recent years have been fueled by the claim that the Social Security system would run out of money. These attacks on Social Security are dishonest and disingenuous.
The Social Security Trust Fund has always been solvent, and at the end of 2013 totaled $2.7 trillion. The Board of Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund projects that if no changes are made to Social Security revenue or benefits, the system will be able to pay all its obligations until 2033, after which it would be able to pay three-quarters of its obligations.
Attacks on Social Security disguised as efforts to save it
Raise the retirement age to 69 or 70 years.
This action would cut benefits by 13 percent or 20 percent (on top of the cut of 13 percent from the ongoing rise in retirement age to 67). Also, raising the retirement age discriminates against workers in physically demanding jobs, older and low-income workers, and especially African Americans, who are disproportionately represented among low-wage workers and the unemployed. Contrary to popular belief, life expectancy has hardly increased for low-income men over the last 25 years, and for women with low incomes it has declined.
Reduce the annual Cost-of- Living Adjustment (COLA).
Social Security's automatic, annual COLAs have averaged about 3 percent per year over the last 25 years, and have protected beneficiaries from erosion of their benefits due to inflation (but not from erosion due to health care cost increases). Many Republicans and some Democrats, including President Obama, want to switch to a new COLA formula called the Chained Consumer Price Index (Chained CPI), which would lead to smaller annual COLAs. According to the Congressional Budget Office, switching to Chained CPI would cut benefits by $108 billion over 10 years.
Our union and many other groups support use of the CPI-E — an alternative index which reflects the consumer purchases and increased health costs of the elderly. In May 2014, a majority of all Democratic members of Congress supported use of CPI-E to determine the annual COLA.
Initiate means testing.
Means testing would not produce significant savings for the trust fund, but would change the nature of Social Security and threaten its future. Means testing would exclude higher-income individuals from receiving benefits, and thus threaten universal public support for Social Security. It would stigmatize Social Security as a "poor person's" program. Social Security is an earned and paid-for right for all workers.
Privatize Social Security.
In 2005, President George W. Bush proposed allowing active workers to opt out of Social Security and invest their savings in the stock market. Those opting out would immediately stop paying Social Security taxes, causing a sudden drop in income to the Social Security Trust Fund and threatening payments to those already retired.
This proposed initiative was defeated after opposition even from members of the president's own party, but it sent a discouraging message to young people: you might not get Social Security benefits when you retire. By 2008, the real consequences of privatization became clear as the stock market fell and banks tottered — retiring wage earners who might have invested their retirement money in stocks and bonds under President Bush's privatization scheme would have been devastated. The existing Social Security system, whatever its limitations, is protected by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.
We must defend Social Security, expand its coverage and make its funding more equitably based.
Two changes to make Social Security stronger, equitable
End the tax cap on high earners.
All employees should pay the same percentage of their wages and salaries to Social Security. In 2014, if a person's salary or wages exceeded a cap of $117,000, they paid no Social Security taxes on any income earned above the cap. The tax cap discriminates against low-wage earners by forcing them to pay a larger share of their earnings to Social Security than those earning much, much more.
Adopt new forms of taxation to generate income to fund Social Security.
One idea is a tax on financial transactions, which makes sense because the great inequality in U.S. income is now exacerbated by these transactions. The European Union has recommended this type of a tax and 11 of its member countries have requested to participate.
Social Security should cover all U.S. residents
State and local public employees weren't included in Social Security when the program was established. Over the years, the law changed and most public workers became eligible, but some state and local public workers are still not covered. As some cities, such as Central Falls, Rhode Island, have fallen into bankruptcy, employees in the city's own pension plan, but not Social Security, have been threatened with loss of all of their benefits. The Social Security law must be amended to cover all state and city public employees.
Millions of undocumented immigrants pay Social Security taxes, but are not entitled to benefits. They should be eligible to receive benefits. Low-wage workers, including domestic workers or migrant farmworkers, should receive some Social Security benefits even if their incomes fall below current minimum requirements.
The Social Security system must catch up to the changing needs of women in the workforce. Full-time working women in the U.S. still earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by full-time working men. Over a lifetime, women earn less pay than men, and therefore receive lower Social Security benefits. Furthermore, juggling career and family means frequent periods of part-time employment and absence from the labor market to care for children and aging parents.
The Social Security system should provide credits for workers who take time out of the workforce or reduce their hours to serve as caregivers. The system should also increase survivor benefits, and provide equal benefits for same-sex partners in states that do not permit same-sex marriage, among other changes.
Ways to strengthen retirement security:
- Push private employers to pay adequate wages and benefits, including retirement benefits, so that their full- and part-time employees depend less on public subsidies.
- Pressure public officials to honor public pension obligation, and elect lawmakers who will support fairer taxation, and not privilege the 1%.
- Resist big-business and conservative attacks on Social Security and public pensions.