The public library in Penn Yan, NY, our village in the heart of the Finger Lakes, hosted a dialogue on Social Security on Tuesday evening that could serve as a model for our nation’s politicians. They still have some time to come up with solutions to assure that this vital program is there for future generations, but a serious national discussion has yet to get underway.
The meeting at the library grew out of conversations at Civic Diversity and Dialogue, a discussion group in our community. The group pulled together a panel consisting of a representative of the county’s Office for the Aging, a college professor, and a retired Social Security employee. Also on hand was a member of the Democratic Committee who serves on the village board and has made a study of the economic impact of Social Security on our county.
Here’s my take on the information and ideas that were tossed around during Tuesday’s discussion.
For more than half of the Social Security recipients in the county, Social Security benefits represent at least half of their income. The program is vital to them, and extremely popular. By and large, seniors are claiming their retirement benefits at 62, even though the financial experts are telling them to work until they are 70. Many are physically unable to continue working, some are tired after years of low-wage labor, and some can’t find jobs that would pay enough to sustain them. When they step out of the workforce, new retirees typically don’t have a financial plan; nor do they have a great deal of savings. They need Social Security just to live. Go to the supermarket on the day Social Security checks are deposited, and you will understand that this is true.
The millennial generation, now aged 18 to 34, is also going to need Social Security. They are the first generation expected to have lifetime earnings below those of their parents. The experts are telling them to save for retirement, but that’s not easy to do because they are saddled by student debt. Some will still be paying on that debt when they retire.
Why then, some in the audience wondered, aren’t millennials more active politically? Why aren’t they demanding, in particular, that Social Security be strengthened? Perhaps, it was suggested, they don’t have time to worry about retirement when they are focused on starting careers and families. It’s just too big an issue to take on. Or perhaps when they see the influence of big money in politics, they feel disenfranchised and doubt they could have an impact.
One obstacle to an objective national discussion, an audience member pointed out, is that politicians keep referring to Social Security as an “entitlement,” when in fact it is income insurance that workers and employers have paid for. Some argued that Social Security’s financial problems would disappear if the cap on income taxed for Social Security were removed. Currently, income that exceeds $118,500 escapes Social Security taxes altogether. It seems anomalous, another audience member noted, that immigrant workers are coming in for so much criticism when they are paying into a system that helps the rest of us but can’t claim benefits themselves.
We should all be aware of the essential role Social Security plays in our county’s economy. Retirement benefits paid out in Yates County amount to nearly $5.8 million per month, and all Social Security benefits, including disability and payments to orphaned children, probably come to something like $88.5 million per year. Unless Congress takes action soon, disability benefits could be cut by 20 percent in 2016. That will hurt both the beneficiaries and the community.
And let’s not forget that our community is made more livable by the efforts of some 450 volunteers in food programs, at the hospital and hospice, and providing transportation. Most of these volunteers are Social Security recipients giving back.
That’s what I heard at last night’s discussion. It was a serious discussion that reflected the deep concerns of all present. If only our politicians could confront the issues with the same degree of seriousness!