Social Security must keep ensuring dignity for all

It used to be that working hard and playing by the rules earned most people economic security and the ability to retire with dignity. But jobs are being outsourced, the jobs that remain offer lower wages and fewer benefits, and the retirement savings of most Americans has been decimated by the stock market — if it wasn’t already used to pay the mortgage.

Employers are shifting pension costs onto workers in a fend-for-yourself retirement system. The typical defined contribution retirement account held only $17,794 in 2009. The typical retirement account for people who had been putting money in from 2003 to 2009 was $59,381.

That may seem like a big number, but it’s closer to peanuts. The best retirement accounts provide a stream of income until death. That’s called an annuity, and at $59,381, it would be $285 per month. At $17,794, it’s closer to $85 a month. Both figures leave the retiree living in severe poverty.

Fortunately, one underpinning of the American Dream remains intact: Social Security. Social Security is the float that keeps seniors out of poverty. But it’s not just a retirement program. Yes, my dad gets it, advancing along in his 10th decade. So does my colleague, whose husband died early, leaving her a widow with two young kids. Another friend, disabled by Parkinson’s disease and no longer able to work, gets disability insurance from Social Security, as does the Ingraham High School student who lost his dad. Social Security is insurance for life.

It’s not what the Wall Street bankers want you to think, and it’s not what D.C. politicians are saying. But these are the facts: Social Security has a $2.5 trillion surplus. It pays a regular and dependable stream of payments to 54 million citizens. In Washington, more than 1 million people receive the earned benefit of Social Security. They, their parents or spouses paid into it, and have earned the benefits they now receive. Social Security isn’t an entitlement; it’s earned through years of hard work.

In Snohomish County, almost 100,000 citizens receive Social Security, including 15,000 disabled workers, 6,700 children and more than 7,000 widows and widowers. Those benefits total $113 million, which is pushed back into the county economy for food, services, rent, utilities and other essentials. Because of the multiplier effect, the economy grows by $170 million, which accounts for 1,600 jobs. As goes Social Security, so go the livelihoods and financial security of more than 100,000 people.

But the benefits don’t seem to matter to the Wall Street one-percenters. They want us to believe Social Security is in trouble, and that benefits won’t be paid. They are pocketbook thieves and ideological warriors, eager to earn a buck by gambling Social Security benefits on Wall Street. Win or lose their bets, they will pocket a hefty amount — because the house always wins.

The average Social Security benefit is $1,162 per month. For the bottom half of seniors, Social Security provides more than 80 percent of their retirement income. For the top half, Social Security is one-third of their income, on average. Policy makers should be considering how to strengthen Social Security, not cut benefits to retirees, widow(er)s and their families. The easiest way: End the cap on taxable income that enables millionaires to get away with paying a lower rate than middle class families. This fix would ensure that the top 1 percent contributes equally to Social Security. It’s fair, increases benefits as private retirement plans dwindle, and evens the playing field so everyone can retire in dignity.

Want to know more? I recommend the free forum, “The Threat to Social Security: An Issue for All Generations,” from 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday at the Jackson Conference Center at Everett Community College. The keynote speaker will be Nancy Altman, author of “The Battle for Social Security” and a nationally renowned expert on Social Security.

She will puncture myths, discuss changes to strengthen benefits, and describe Social Security’s importance to every generation of Americans — from children of the Great Depression to those born in this Great Recession. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, will also speak. Since the Economic Opportunity Institute is a sponsor, I will be there as well. I look forward to seeing you there.

Originally published in the Everett Herald

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