Thu, Jul

Expanding Social Security Is Winning Policy and Politics for Democrats


GUEST COMMENTARY - Democrats learned the wrong lesson about Social Security in the 1990s. That incorrect lesson was unfortunately reinforced in 2005. Now is the time to learn the right lesson. President Joe Biden is on the right track, but to truly succeed, he must shake off the wrong lessons of the past.

Starting with President Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide victory in 1936, through the 1982 midterms where Democrats gained 26 House seats, Social Security was a winning issue. But starting in the 1990s, Democrats lost their way on Social Security, with negative consequences for both policy and politics.

President Ronald Reagan transformed our politics when he declaredthat “government is the problem.” By the time today’s projected shortfall emerged, the Democratic Party was controlled by the so-called New Dems, most prominently President Bill Clinton. Those New Dems were convinced by deficit hawks that Social Security was a “problem” and that the “solution” had to include unpopular benefit cuts.

To avoid political accountability, the conventional thinking was that Democrats should hold hands with Republicans and jump together. In fact, Clinton reportedly was on the ledge, holding hands with Newt Gingrich, when the Monica Lewinsky affair and the subsequent impeachment made cooperation impossible.

That wrong lesson was reinforced in 2005, when President Bush proposed partially privatizing Social Security, while decimating the benefits of the middle class. Democrats opposed Bush’s privatization plan, without offering an alternative of their own. That was the correct course of action at the time. Republicans controlled the House and Senate, as well as the White House, and a Democratic alternative would have distracted from the very dangerous Bush proposal.

But despite winning control of the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms, as well as the White House in 2008, too many Democrats clung to the wrong lesson. They continued to call for and seek a bipartisan package of revenue increases and benefit cuts. They failed in that effort because, as they now see clearly, benefit cuts are bad policy and politics — the infamous third rail. But too many still fail to see that a positive Social Security agenda is a winner.

As important as it is to restore Social Security to long-range balance, that is simply a means to the end of providing some measure of economic security. Though Social Security has many strengths, its benefits are too low.

The nation is facing a retirement income crisis. Numerous polls and surveys over recent years reveal that not having enough money in retirement leads the list of Americans’ top financial concerns. Expert analyses reveal that Americans’ concerns about retirement are well-founded. Expanding Social Security’s modest benefits, with no cuts, is a solution to that crisis.

"If the Biden administration championed an expansion plan, unveiled at a White House event with major stakeholders in attendance, that could not be ignored."

Americans have heard for years that Social Security is facing a shortfall. In addition to providing cash benefits, Social Security is intended to provide, as its name suggests, a sense of security, peace of mind. Working families should be secure in the knowledge that when wages are gone in the event of old age, disability, or death, Social Security is there.

President Biden campaigned on a promise to expand Social Security’s modest benefits, while dedicating more revenue to it. Most Democratic senators and members of the House support that as well. Yet the mainstream media fails to take those proposals seriously.

If the Biden administration championed an expansion plan, unveiled at a White House event with major stakeholders in attendance, that could not be ignored.

The Republicans have given the Democrats a gift in their talk of sun-setting and cutting Social Security. Biden is right to highlight those comments and insist on a clean debt limit. But at the right moment, sometime later this year, Biden should propose a plan to expand Social Security.

Such a plan should increase benefits across-the-board, expand benefits in additional targeted ways, and restore the program to long-range balance by dedicating new revenue from those with incomes over $400,000 (as Biden proposed doing during his campaign).

In addition to requiring Social Security contributions on incomes over $400,000, the new revenue could — and should — come from any number of progressive sources. Potential sources are Biden’s proposed minimum tax on billionaires, a wealth tax, an income surtax, a higher tax on capital gains, the estate tax, or numerous other sources.

In light of the enormous income and wealth inequality of recent decades, which has cost Social Security literally billions of dollars each year, this is fully justifiable. There is more than enough money to expand Social Security and restore it to long-range balance, without unduly burdening anyone.

The Senate should hold hearings on the Biden plan and seek to bring it to a vote. The president should demand hearings and a vote in the House, as well. If Republicans block the Biden plan and fail to produce their own plan for Social Security, they will effectively be advocating for an across-the-board cut around 2034, since that will be the result of no action.

Poll after poll shows that such a potential Biden expansion plan would be extremely popular. Because Social Security is so important, painting the contrast — Democrats want to expand Social Security, Republicans want to cut it — is a much more powerful message than simply attacking Republicans, polling reveals. Indeed, Independent voters are 19 points more likely to back Democrats when told that Democrats support expanding benefits!

If the debate over cutting or expanding Social Security is a major issue in 2024, Democrats will be in a strong position to retain the White House and the Senate, while retaking the House. They will then be able to hold votes on Social Security — in the sunshine, not behind closed doors.

President Roosevelt called Social Security “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” Now is the moment for President Biden to not just protect Social Security, but continue that noble Democratic tradition of adding to that structure.


(Nancy J. Altman is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. Her latest book is "The Truth About Social Security: The Founders' Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies, and Common Misunderstandings" (2018). She is also the author of "The Battle for Social Security" (2005). This article was first published in CommonDreams.org..)