Nancy Altman, Founding Co-Director, Social Security Works
Not a single candidate in 2016 campaigned on a promise to repeal and replace Social Security or Medicare. Anyone who did would have been soundly defeated. Indeed, unlike the Republican opponents he beat, Donald Trump promised not to touch Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. But now that the Republicans will soon be in charge of all branches of government, destroying Social Security and Medicare is on the top of their agenda.
Two days after the election, Paul Ryan said, “With a unified Republican government, we can actually get things done.” One of those things is ending Medicare as we know it, as I and others have spotlighted. It turns out that Social Security is in the Republicans’ cross hairs, as well. This is not a surprise. Ending Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is Republican-elite orthodoxy.
What is surprising is that the Republican establishment is so eager, it can’t wait to unveil its plans. In some ways, you can’t blame the Republican elites. They have been waiting a long time.
In the 1936 election campaign, repealing and replacing Social Security was the Republican battle cry. That year, the Republican presidential standard bearer, Alf Landon, claimed, “To get a workable old age pension plan we must repeal [Social Security].” What did he and his fellow Republicans want to replace it with? Instead of Social Security’s pension plan, which replaces wages so that people can retire with dignity and maintain their standard of living as they age, the Republicans proposed paying all seniors an identical subsistence-level amount.
Now, just before Congress left town, the powerful Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled a proposal that would radically transform Social Security. It takes a long time to phase in, but when it does, what would Social Security provide? An essentially flat, subsistence level benefit, independent of how much a worker contributed, just as the 1936 Republican Party proposed.
Unlike 1936, when straightforward repeal was possible, because Social Security hadn’t yet begun, today it has been around for over eighty years. So, to get back to what the Republicans wanted then and now, you have to slash benefits – and the Republican plan does so with gusto.
Remember the ubiquitous mantra of those who propose to dismantle Social Security: no benefit cuts for those aged 55 and older? That is out the window. Every single one of the more than 57 million current beneficiaries will experience a cut, under the just-released Republican plan. And for some of them, the cut will be extreme. Take a worker who contributed to Social Security for 43 years and earned $118,500 just prior to retiring this year at age 65. At age 95, he will, under the Republican plan, receive a benefit that is less than half ― 48.7 percent, to be exact ― of the value of the benefit he is receiving today.
And for tomorrow’s retirees, it’s even worse. Today’s 50-year old worker with the same work history will receive, at age 65, a benefit that is 74.8 percent what today’s 65-year old receives. And, if he or she lives to age 95, the benefit will be about a third ― 34.6 percent ― of what it would have been under current law!
The Republican proposal raises benefits for long-term low-income workers who qualify for a minimum benefit, but don’t be fooled. It is window dressing, hiding what is really going on. Under the Republican plan, a 50-year old worker earning $12,000 a year, who has contributed to Social Security for twenty years and is able to hold off claiming his earned benefit until age 65, will receive a benefit that is twenty percent lower than current law. And that is if he or she can hang on until age 65!
And the Republican plan does more than slash benefits for workers. Through a technical change in the way benefits are calculated, the self-proclaimed Party of family values proposes to lower the benefits of caregivers who take time out of the paid work to care for children, elderly parents, spouses, or others. And, on top of that, the Republican plan cuts the benefits of the spouses and children of workers so seriously disabled that they can no longer support their families.
Why would the Republican plan slash benefits so deeply? Why does it slash benefits of current retirees, of caregivers, of the families of disabled workers? Because not only do Republicans not want billionaires to pay a penny more in taxes, they want to give them a tax cut. The proposal eliminates the taxes millionaires and billionaires are required to pay on their Social Security benefits!
None of this is what anyone voted for. But it will be hard to stop. A press release announcing the Republican plan claims it would “permanently save Social Security.” That messaging muddies the debate. Does the Republican plan save Social Security or destroy it?
President George W. Bush used the same messaging in 2005, when he proposed radically converting Social Security to a flat, subsistence-level benefit, with private savings layered on top. But, in 2005, Bush engaged in a highly visible 60-day nationwide tour to sell his scheme, so that the American people knew what was being proposed.
Perhaps having learned from that failure, today’s Republicans seem intent on destroying Social Security by stealth, with technical changes and procedures that avoid accountability. On November 30, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, who is slated to be part of the Trump cabinet, proposed budget “reforms” that, if adopted, would force deep, automatic cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Unlike Bush, who owned his Social Security proposal, where is Donald Trump? If he really doesn’t want to cut Social Security and Medicare, why doesn’t he tweet his opposition to the Republican establishment’s Social Security and Medicare proposals? If one looks at his statements prior to running for President, he isn’t tweeting his opposition because he secretly supports destroying these vital institutions, created and defended by Democrats. But, unlike Bush, he will likely keep quiet, in order not to draw attention to what is happening.
The Republican plans to destroy Social Security and Medicare amount to a stealth war on seniors. And given how important these programs are to women, who have, on average, longer life expectancies and work at lower wages, this is also part of the ongoing war on women. It is essential that we defeat these attacks. But it will require heightened involvement and vigilance by everyone.