Social Security advocates go on the offensive

In March, the AFL-CIO issued a call-to-arms on Social Security, saying, “We have to stop playing defense, because we have nothing to be defensive about.”

Advocates have taken up the challenge, coalescing around a strategy centered on eliminating the cap on taxable earnings, raising the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to reflect the higher out-of-pocket medical expenses faced by seniors, and increasing benefits across the board in ways that provide larger percentage increases for low-income beneficiaries. Building on a bill introduced in 2010 by Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) that included the first two of these measures, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) made them the centerpiece of the retirement provisions in his Rebuild America Act.

The three measures were also among the recommendations of a blueprint released last Friday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation and the NOW Foundation that focused on women; and two of these measures (minus the COLA increase) were among the recommendations of the 2011 Commission to Modernize Social Security that focused on people of color. The Center for Community Change and the Task Force on Older Women’s Economic Security, who are expected to issue their own set of recommendations in the near future, will also include some of these measures.

It goes without saying that advocates are not just making a strong case for increasing benefits, but also pushing back against proposed cuts—hence the focus on the need for a higher COLA when many are arguing for a lower COLA based on a “chained” consumer price index.

The progressive blueprints also include provisions that target particularly vulnerable groups, such as caregivers, very low-income retirees receiving the special minimum benefit, and college and vocational school students whose dependent benefits were cut in 1981. There’s significant overlap among the recommendations, with relatively minor variations reflecting the groups’ constituencies and different strategic approaches to dealing with the revenue side of the equation (the Commission to Modernize Social Security presented a package that included sufficient revenue to close the projected 75-year shortfall and pay for all recommended benefit increases).

Advocates must balance the impulse to make the system more progressive and help under-served groups with the need to preserve its role as a universal, contributory, and work-based social insurance system. While it’s tempting to attach many items on the progressive wish list to such a popular program (and, admittedly, this is a good way to grow a coalition), progressives also need to resist deficit hawks’ attempt to re-brand Social Security as a safety net program for the poor, which would doom the program in the long run.

One way to do this is to focus on policies that help everyone, but especially matter to low-income groups, such as replacing 95-100 percent of the first $767 in average indexed monthly earnings rather than 90 percent (one of several variations on the across-the-board benefit increase mentioned earlier). Another is to focus on proposals that can be framed as tweaks or extensions of the existing system, such as equal benefits for same-sex couples as proposed by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) (an issue also flagged in the progressive blueprints). Though this generally argues against major changes or additions to the system, some proposals to take Social Security in new directions—such as providing for paid family leave—could conceivably enhance Social Security’s popularity rather than  weigh it down.

All of this is to say that there is a shared resolve among Social Security advocates—many of whom attended Tuesday’s protest at the “Fiscal Summit”—to fight cuts in the program while pushing for needed improvements. The one potential outlier is a certain 1000-pound elephant that sometimes thinks it wise to make nice with the poachers.