Our guest blogger is Christian E. Weller, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Social Security’s anniversary – August 14 – is the perfect time to consider policies that could raise retirement security for tens of millions of Americans, who have seen their wealth decimated by crashing financial and housing markets. Cutting Social Security benefits – Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) favorite approach – would exacerbate what is already a crisis by reducing the last sure thing in retirement safety. Maybe his answer to the retirement crisis is to do as he does: work until you’re well into your 70s. Working becomes the new retirement with Sen. McCain.
Policymakers need to protect Social Security benefits, especially for vulnerable groups and create more wealth, especially for low-income and moderate-income families.
How do the presumptive presidential candidates address these goals? Sen. McCain’s mantra is “cut, cut, cut.” He sees a world of higher retirement age, smaller cost-of-living adjustments, and fewer benefits for moderate-income and higher-income earners, among other possible, yet unspecified cuts. And, it is not clear that he has abandoned the costly and ineffective idea of privatization that he championed in 2000 and that President Bush unsuccessfully peddled in 2005.
This is no way to get started on addressing the retirement crisis. Household wealth dropped by a whopping $3.0 trillion from the middle of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008, but who is counting? Apparently, a lot of people are. The Employee Benefits Research Institute reported in April 2008 that only 18 percent of workers were very confident that they will live comfortably in retirement – the primary reason for people to build wealth. This is the lowest level of retirement confidence since 1993.
Contrast this with Sen. Obama’s proposals. Sen. Obama has proposed to protect Social Security by opposing privatization and a higher retirement age, while also looking to increase revenues by expanding the cap, above which earnings are not subject to Social Security taxes, currently $102,000.
Moreover, Sen. Obama wants to make it easier for people to save. He would require that employers automatically enroll their employees in retirement savings plans and, if employers don’t offer such plans, they would have to offer employees an easy way to contribute to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) through payroll deduction. On top of this, he would vastly improve the current system of public matches for people’s contributions to their retirement savings accounts, at least for families making less than $75,000. Sen. McCain has no such proposals.
The candidates need to tell voters how they will address their concerns. It is clear that wanting to cut Social Security amid rapidly dwindling wealth doesn’t accomplish that.