by Nancy Altman, President, Social Security Works
The last time income and wealth inequality were at their current sky-high levels, the American people fought back. They elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Democratic majorities in Congress. Together, they took on corporations, big banks, and wealthy elites. They enacted a minimum wage, protection of workers as they sought to unionize, and Social Security.
FDR and the Democratic Party he headed championed working families and economic justice. The New Deal fundamentally changed our country for the better.
Now, as our country experiences another period of economic injustice, where wealth is redistributed upward, it’s time to take bold action and build on those pillars of the New Deal. The minimum wage should be increased to at least $15 an hour. The right to collectively bargain should be protected and strengthened. And Social Security should be expanded.
When FDR signed Social Security into law, he stated, “This law represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” In the decades that followed, our country built upon that cornerstone, increasing Social Security benefits, bringing in categories of workers that were initially excluded and protecting working families against the loss of wages in the event of disability or death. We enacted Medicare as the first step towards universal health insurance for all.
But in recent decades, that progress stalled. Worse, right-wing Republicans, who opposed Social Security and Medicare since their inception, cooked up schemes to cut and privatize them. For years, many so-called “New Democrats” were also on board with these schemes, buying into Republican lies that we need to cut benefits to reduce the deficit. In fact, Social Security doesn’t add a penny to the deficit, which has been created by huge tax giveaways for the wealthy pushed by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump, together with their enablers in Congress.
Outside the Morning Joe bubble, the American people rightly oppose cuts to the benefits they earn with every paycheck. In the 2016 primary, supporters of every candidate ranging from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders agreed on only one policy issue: Social Security benefits should not be cut. Seventy-two percent of Americans support increasing Social Security benefits and paying for them by requiring the wealthy to start paying their fair share.
Americans are wise to support protecting and expanding Social Security. Our country is facing a looming retirement income crisis. Today, Social Security comprises the majority of the income of more than three out of five retirees. In light of the disappearance of traditional employer-sponsored benefits and stagnating wages, tomorrow’s retirees will depend on Social Security even more.
In addition to addressing the retirement income crisis, expanding Social Security while requiring the wealthiest to pay more will reduce today’s rising and perilous income and wealth inequality. It will reduce the burdensome squeeze on families.
It’s time to expand Social Security, both by increasing benefits for everyone and by adding new benefits. Caregivers should receive Social Security credit so that people who take time out of the workforce for the invaluable work of caring for loved ones don’t have to sacrifice a secure retirement. And the United States should join the rest of the industrialized world by providing Social Security benefits when wages are lost at the birth or adoption of a child, and when workers experience serious but temporary disabilities as the result of illness or accident.
The good news is that, pushed by grassroots activists around the country, Democrats have listened. Around ninety percent of House and Senate Democrats support expanding Social Security, as did every major Democratic candidate in the 2016 presidential primary. So far, no Republican politicians support that profoundly wise policy. They are out of step with those they represent.
Social Security embodies the best of American values. It is a program that unites all of us. It is economically just and is benefited by economically just policies. Increased immigration strengthens Social Security. Pay equity strengthens Social Security. An end to discrimination in the workplace — whether that discrimination is based on gender, race, sexual orientation, country of origin, or any other invidious distinction — strengthens Social Security.
Democrats must remember that they are the party of the 99 percent, the party of FDR, dedicated to building on his vision. They need to take back Congress by running on the platform laid out in the Pledge to Fight for Good Jobs, Sustainable Prosperity, and Economic Justice, including expanding Social Security and Medicare, a $15 minimum wage, and tuition-free public college.
Running against Trump is important, but it’s not enough on its own. Visionary political leaders, FDR foremost among them, have always fought for working Americans. The roadmap in the Pledge to Fight for Good Jobs, Sustainable Prosperity, and Economic Justice, of which I am a proud signer, shows the way. Candidates who run on that platform will be rewarded with victory in November.