Donald Trump is rolling out his White House team and forging alliances with Capitol Hill Republicans he once claimed to disdain. In the process, the conversation on Social Security has changed drastically and, for millions of Americans in the later years of their working lives, disastrously.
The US is racing toward a retirement crisis, fueled by the elimination of traditional employer-sponsored pension plans in the private sector and full-frontal attacks on those for public employees, the failure of 401(k) and other employee retirement savings plans to provide an adequate replacement, and the failure of Congress to increase Social Security benefits to make up for these shifts.
For decades, Washington has more or less ignored this problem, focusing instead on finding ways to cut benefits to solve Social Security’s long-term funding problems — even though these problem are really a function of decades-long wage stagnation, which means fewer payroll tax dollars to fund the system (over $750 billion is collected annually). And even though the decline of pensions has made Social Security more vital to working people than ever: Some 60 million people nationally receive old-age and disability benefits every year, making it by far the biggest income support program in the country. Social Security is immensely important in New York State as well, where 3.5 million people receive retiree, spousal, survivors’, and disability benefits.
It was an extremely hopeful sign when, two years ago, the conversation started to change. Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Sherrod Brown, and advocacy groups led to Social Security Works, began talking up proposals to boost Social Security benefits significantly for the first time in more than 40 years.
But with the Trump’s election, all such talk has died out. Much has been made of the fact that the president-elect, during his campaign, argued against cutting Social Security, setting himself apart from virtually every other Republican candidate. But in previous years he has supported it, and the principal argument he mustered during the campaign was that cutting Social Security was a political non-starter —not that he didn’t think it made sense on the merits.
Now that he’s planning his transition, Trump is focused on repealing Obamacare and passing a massive tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit the richest Americans. To do so, he’s cozying up to Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Ryan, the GOP’s congressional policy driver, has been pushing to “reform” — i.e., cut—Social Security for years. Tax breaks for the rich always come first when Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — they’re the GOP version of crystal meth — and it’s more likely than not that political prudence will keep them from attacking Social Security, at least during the first Trump administration.
Should Trump be reelected, however, anything could happen. With Ryan and McConnell by his side to wheedle and flatter him, he just might decide to adopt Social Security “reform” as a legacy issue. The good news is that Warren and Sanders are expected to assume a higher profile in the Senate — and both are even more convinced that tacking to the center would be fatal to Democrats. Chuck Schumer, who will become minority leader, hasn’t supported expanding Social Security, but has never supported cutting it either, and has happily attacked Republicans for doing so. Together, that suggests the Dems can exercise the discipline to stall any challenge to the program with a filibuster threat.
The bad news is that the balance of power could shift in 2018, when 23 Democratic Senate seats will be up for reelection — and in the era of Citizens United, it’s only become harder for candidates to resist the lure of big money and the policy positions it tends to favor. Centrists will argue that the Dems either have to tack to the right or face big losses.
Some Democratic-leaning power centers in Washington were pushing back against progressive positions on issues like Social Security even before the election. The Progressive Policy Institute, a center-right think-tank, published an op-ed in late October resurrecting the flawed argument that Social Security crowds out other spending — this despite the fact that the program is entirely self-funding — and that Democrats must stop “favoring” the elderly over everyone else. The AARP, a huge lobbying power with 37 million retired or over-50 members, attempted to straddle the line politically with an ad campaign that posits an enormous loss of benefits if Social Security isn’t “reformed” right away.
What’s to be done? Progressives who have defended Social Security for years have pushed back hard with a petition demanding AARP stop buying into right-wing arguments about the program. They are also focusing on the pledges the president-elect made during his campaign. “If Trump goes along with plans to cut or privatize Social Security, this is a huge breach of faith with voters,” writes Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Activists should hold his feet to the fire, and if he broaches the subject, “this should be a career ending move for Trump and any of his accomplices.”
Those concerned about the fate of retirement in America may want to look for warning signs well in advance, however.
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and activist. He is the author of The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, 2012).
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