Comment: Don’t believe GOP line; they want Social Security cuts

They know it’s unpopular, but they’re looking to push the retirement age up to cut the program’s costs.

By Teresa Ghilarducci / Bloomberg Opinion

At President Biden’s State of the Union speech, congressional Republicans tried to distance themselves from plans to cut Social Security. Don’t believe it. Plenty of Republicans are determined to cut Social Security; even though 84 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats want those retirement benefits to increase. Things are already bad enough for retirees and older workers. Benefit cuts would only make them worse.

Make no mistake: House Republicans want to take advantage of the debt limit vote due this spring to cut Social Security. That’s behind their proposal to create a commission to explore ways to trim Social Security costs. And last week, former Vice President Mike Pence said in a private meeting that the government should partially privatize the program; which will cut benefits for most families, including those who most rely on them.

It seems Republicans have forgotten the lessons of 2005, when newly reelected President George W. Bush proposed privatizing Social Security only to abandon the idea after his ratings plunged further each time he brought it up.

And it seems they have also forgotten the lessons of 1983, when President Ronald Reagan and a Democratic Congress raised the retirement age to 67 and increased taxes to shore up the program. That deal was based on bright hopes that pensions and 401(k)s would expand to pick up the slack, and that older workers would find accommodating labor markets. Those hopes never panned out.

Now, poverty rates among older Americans are increasing just when tens of millions of boomers are reaching their early 60s and 70s. Americans age 55 to 64 now work significantly more hours per week than their peers in other wealthy nations. Nonetheless, earlier this month the newly appointed House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (a Republican of Texas) said he sees a new Social Security Commission as repeat of the 1983 deal.

I expect House Republicans to pick up on the plan recently proposed by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a right-leaning Washington think tank. The CRFB would like to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70, which effectively acts as a benefit cut of about 13 percent to 15 percent for people forced out of work and into retirement way before age 70.

Today, fewer than 5 percent of Social Security claimants claim at age 70; even though they leave money on the table by claiming earlier. About 49 percent of men and 52 percent of women see big reductions in monthly benefits for taking their Social Security before normal retirement age (67 for those born in 1960 or later).

Even if they prefer to keep working, most older men and women retire earlier than they want to; they get laid off, they face physical or mental difficulties working; or they need to care for an ailing spouse. Raising the retirement age to some aspirational number ignores this reality.

And many people who work past 70 — or even 80 — do so because they feel they can’t afford to stop. Do Republicans expect further benefit cuts to help people like 82-year-old Warren Marion, a Walmart cashier who finally planned to retire after a viral TikTok video and GoFundMe campaign netted him more than $100,000? TikToker Rory McCarty posted the video saying, “I was astounded seeing this little older man still grinding. Working 8- to 9-hour shifts.” Marion said he planned to use the money to pay off debt, including his house. McCarty copied the idea from a fundraising campaign that helped a different octogenarian Walmart worker to retire; one Carman Kelley, who pushed a shopping cart in lieu of a walker.

Republicans and Democrats alike should be ashamed that America’s retirement security has eroded into random acts of kindness and GoFundMe pensions.

Cutting benefits in 1983 was a mistake. Most people approaching retirement now have nothing or next to nothing in a retirement account. And the vast majority of people over 62 (79 percent) — who had just started their careers in 1983 — don’t have enough potential sources of income from anywhere to maintain their preretirement standard of living.

More than 50 percent of older Americans get most of their income from Social Security. Even though the average check is only $1,676, the program is still the major force reducing retirement wealth inequality.

Cutting Social Security benefits isn’t an idea whose time has come. It’s an idea whose time has come and gone.

Teresa Ghilarducci is the Schwartz Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research. She’s the co-author of “Rescuing Retirement” and a member of the board of directors of the Economic Policy Institute.

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