When Democratic presidential contenders debate at Drake University on January 14, they should be given an opportunity to state their positions on the future of Social Security. During the previous six primary debates, moderators did not ask a single question on this crucial program that provides basic financial security to 64 million people, including 650,000 Iowans. Working and retired residents will depend on the next president to safeguard Social Security for the future — to protect against benefit cuts and make necessary expansions to the program.
The average annual Social Security benefit in Iowa is about $16,800 per year, a few thousand dollars above the federal poverty line. Too many older Iowans are struggling to afford basics like food, fuel and housing, including a Des Moines retiree who has been paying into Social Security since she was 16 but can’t make her benefit checks last two weeks, let alone a month. These seniors badly need an income boost and most certainly cannot endure benefit cuts.
Social Security not only keeps seniors out of poverty, it provides economic stimulus. In 2018, Social Security benefits pumped $10 billion into Iowa’s economy. That puts extra money into the pockets of Iowa businesses, employees, and citizens.
Unfortunately, some in the news media have bought into the narrative that “no one in Washington wants to talk about Social Security” because it is a politically sensitive issue. Perhaps that’s one reason why moderators haven’t asked the question during debates. This narrative holds that neither party is willing to address Social Security’s long-term future. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Many conservatives continue to claim that “entitlements” must be “reformed” (code for cut and privatized). Never mind that Social Security is an earned benefit, not an “entitlement.” Some fiscal hawks have even argued that Social Security, a self-funded program, needs to be cut to pay for the deficit-swelling Trump/GOP tax package. Meanwhile, Democrats have introduced legislation to keep Social Security financially healthy for the rest of the century while boosting benefits and increasing cost-of-living adjustments — mostly by asking the wealthiest to contribute their fair share of payroll taxes. (More than 165 million Americans pay into Social Security, but contributions are capped at $137,700 in annual wages.)
With the power of millions of American seniors behind us, we both have fought for decades to protect Social Security. In 2003, we helped defeat President George W. Bush’s push to privatize the program. Since then, we have rallied against benefit cuts — and led the movement to expand Social Security, beginning with the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013.
As President Franklin Roosevelt made clear when he signed Social Security into law, the program is a “cornerstone in a structure … which is by no means complete.” He understood the program would need to be expanded over time to continue protecting seniors’ financial security. Presidential contenders in the party of Roosevelt must be asked about Social Security’s future on the debate stage. Seniors in Iowa and across the country deserve to hear their answers.
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Tom Harkin represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate from 1985-2015 and chairs the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare advisory board. Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.