Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

The People’s Choice for the People’s Pension

From the New York Times Economix Blog, by Nancy Folbre:

nasi social security poll

Poll: Americans will pay more for Social Security

Social Security, the most transparently self-financed program of the federal government, is not increasing our budget deficit. The most recent trustees’ report shows sufficient funds to pay full benefits until 2033.

No one is making out like a bandit: Social Security beneficiaries who retired in 2010 are expected to get back approximately what they paid in.

If we wanted to adopt a cautious policy measure that would eliminate the shortfalls predicted 20 years down the road, we could eliminate the cap on earned income subject to Social Security taxes, currently set at $113,700. Such a measure would lead to increased payments by about the top 5.2 percent of wage earners.

Legislation designed to “scrap the cap” has been introduced in Congress. Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, and Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida, have drafted a law that would require all workers to pay the same overall Social Security tax rate, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, and Representative Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, recently proposed application of the tax to earnings over $250,000 (as well as under $113,700) creating a “doughnut hole” exemption for earners in between in order to win more votes.

President Obama has voiced support for cap elimination or modification proposals in the past.

But as Thomas B. Edsall pointed out in a recent commentary, “scrap the cap” has apparently been taken off the table, despite evidence of considerable public support for it.

Readers doubtful of that public support should read the new National Academy of Social Insurance report, “Strengthening Social Security: What Do Americans Want?,” based on an online survey asking respondents whether they favored or opposed 14 specific changes to Social Security. The analysis also draws on findings from focus groups to add qualitative texture to the quantitative results.

That online survey, an opt-in model, is not based on a probability sample, but its findings echo other representative surveys, including this Quinnipiac University poll from 2011, which found that 56 percent of Americans favored raising the cap on taxable Social Security income.

Readers mystified by the yawning gulf between public opinion and current political discussion might benefit from the background provided in Eric Laursen’s magisterial history, “The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan.” The book offers more than 800 pages of fascinating if gory details about the lobbying efforts and misinformation campaigns aimed at bringing the program down.

It also reports on a series of surveys going back to 1977 in which most respondents said they would be willing to pay higher payroll taxes if that would shore Social Security up for the future.

Mr. Laursen effectively decodes much of the economic jargon that has obscured public understanding of these issues, and continues to blogregularly on this topic.

Readers feeling demoralized by the history of class warfare over social insurance might be cheered by two of the short videos recently entered in anonline contest sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation on the theme of “I’m Ready” to fix the national debt.

In one entry, “Being Honest, Tough Choices,” a serious young man uses his webcam to explain in simple, direct terms why he supports Social Security and deplores the rhetoric of “makers versus takers, young versus old.”

Another entry, originally titled “Scrap the Cap” but currently labeled “Movin’ In, Kids,” has outpaced all others to date in terms of both viewings and ratings. It features some lovable oldsters in a hilarious rap performance warning their son that if their Social Security benefits are cut he better pull out the sofa bed and put out some fresh towels because they will be living together from now on.

Their song and dance goes on to explain why scrapping the cap would be better for everyone concerned.

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