Will Millennials Ever See Social Security?
According to the AARP, half of all elderly Americans died impoverished in the years following the stock market crash of 1929, or “The Great Depression.” That wasn’t a hiccup in the free market, though — the entire capitalist system seems to collapse under its own weight once every few years. Then we bail out the banks and automakers and the whole thing starts again. But who bails out our vulnerable citizens?
Despite what you may have heard, prioritizing capital over human life is not the way to build a solid economic or civilizational foundation. It was for this reason that 1935 saw the implementation of Social Security as a vital part of America’s social contract and safety net. That makes it 84 years old. Many conservative politicians have spent each of those 84 years demonizing Social Security, lying about it, and deliberately sabotaging it so their patrons from the financial services industry can sell private retirement products of their own.
Said Republican Representative John Taber in 1935:
“Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people.”
Representative Daniel Reed, also a Republican, said this:
“The lash of the dictator will be felt and 25 million free Americans will for the first time submit themselves for a fingerprint test.”
Of Medicare — another program seniors rely upon — Saint Reagan himself said: “If Medicare passes into law, the consequences will be dire beyond imagining.”
No matter what financial condition you believe the Social Security Administration to be in today, nobody should be equating the spirit of these programs with “slavery” or “the dictator’s lash.” Social Security is, and always has been, a civilized, successful and pro-social program we all help fund, we all benefit from, and which allows each of us to retire with a full measure of dignity after we leave the workforce.
However, for several reasons, the future of Social Security is an open question. Will it still be around when millennials need it? Let’s try to find out.
What Did People Do Before Social Security?
Before we continue, let’s lay out the stakes. You’re probably thinking: Surely we didn’t just let old people die in ignominy.
According to the AARP, however, that’s literally exactly what we did. After the Great Depression, and before Social Security, half of all elderly Americans died impoverished, as I mentioned. The paroxysms of capital-first economics left us with no other choice than to build a program that could provide dignity in retirement no matter what else happened to the market. We got tired of stock market crashes wiping out people’s retirement savings.
What else did Americans do to get by before Social Security? They:
- Relied on pensions. But today, only 15% of the private sector workforce participates in a pension program. When you include public sector workers, the number rises to only 23%.
- Lived off investments. But today, 38 million Americans can’t afford the housing they live in, much less afford to engage in investing.
- Lived off savings accounts or hoarded cash. Same problem as above. Landlords keep millions of housing units empty to create false scarcity. Meanwhile, one-third of Americans have no retirement savings to speak of and wages remain stagnant after failing for decades to reflect real economic growth.
The remainder lived off their surviving family, moved into poorhouses, depended on the trickle of philanthropy from a local church or, as mentioned previously, simply died destitute.
This is not how a civilized country cares for its elderly. And unless we get our act together, life is once again going to get very, very hard for a huge number of Americans as they approach retirement age.
Will Social Security Be Around When Millennials Need It?
The “crisis” surrounding Social Security is an entirely manufactured one. And it was manufactured largely by Republicans. If you find that hard to believe, never forget that these are the folks who spent almost a century calling the program “slavery.”
Robert Reich has served in four U.S. presidential administrations and was the Labor Secretary from 1993 to 1997. He recently ripped the mask off the Republican one-two punch designed to cripple and eventually destroy the American safety net:
Step One: Give huge tax cuts to multinational corporations and the grotesquely wealthy. Thanks to Trump and Congressional Republicans, that’s been accomplished. It’s a heist for the rich, carried out by the rich.
Step Two: Cry crocodile tears over the monstrous deficit they helped create and use it as an excuse to dismantle Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Step two is in progress as we speak. The latest Trump-GOP budget proposes that over the next 10 years, the wealthiest and most productive country in the history of the world implements huge funding cuts for our most important social programs:
- Medicaid: $1.5 trillion in funding, gone.
- Medicare: $845 million in funding, gone.
- Social Security: $25 billion in funding, gone.
This is monstrous. And remember: these aren’t necessary cuts. This isn’t some grand bargain in the wake of unavoidable disaster. These are cuts that Republicans made the case for by spending decades whittling down taxes on corporations and the highest-income Americans.
Let’s be clear: Social Security is definitely at risk. But it’s not because the program “doesn’t work” or is “unsustainable” or because there are too many Americans clamoring to take part (America represents 5% of the world population). It’s at risk because the program has been a target of Republican-led austerity-for-the-poor for almost a century.
When we ask them, about 80% of millennials indicate they’re not hopeful Social Security will be there for them. But that’s not a foregone conclusion — it’s the result of generations of very deliberate information warfare and a government that was broken on purpose by millionaires doing the bidding of billionaires.
And yet, under the law as written, the Urban Institute indicates that employees who turn 30 in 2019 have the right to $1 million in Social Security benefits by the time they retire. And they had better, because without tuition reimbursement from employers or a massive federal forgiveness program, many of them may still be paying off their student loans by then.
But that’s not the future our young people are in store for. The U.S. Treasury started sounding the alarm in 2016 that they were already dipping into the Social Security trusts to cover payouts for retiring Americans.
Remember Robert Reich? Here’s his big idea for ensuring Social Security is around for working young people today, and how we can strengthen it further and make sure this “entitlement” reflects our country’s real-world economic output and cost of living:
Raise the ceiling on income subject to the Social Security tax.
That’s it. That’s nearly all we need to do.
Right now, only the first $120,000 of yearly income for high-income earners is taxable for these purposes. Jeff Bezos makes $4.4 million per hour. And this is a man who scoured the countryside for even more tax giveaways so he could break ground on a new company headquarters.
Moreover, conservative ideology would have us believe that Social Security is “something for nothing” — that it’s old folks who didn’t plan properly, and now they want to drain the nation’s coffers by living semi-comfortably after they retire. The truth is far different: every dollar spent on Social Security yields twice that in economic benefits. The sabotage of Social Security is transparently just another giveaway to the rich. And to the military industrial complex. And, eventually, to the banking industry, which, when Social Security is no more, will enjoy the greatest windfall in living memory.
The question isn’t whether Social Security will exist, or whether we can “afford” for Americans to retire with dignity. The question is whether we want to come together and make some common-sense changes to how government functions, in order to ensure that it exists when the next generation needs it.