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New poll: no enthusiasm for cutting Social Security benefits

In Political world on March 31, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Democracy Corps and Tulane University released a new poll in a post entitled “Mixed Messages on the Deficit.” When respondents were asked if they would recommend raising taxes to pay for the deficit, 51 percent said no, while 43 percent thought it might be necessary. However,

And by an even wider 2:1 margin, voters reject cuts in Social Security, Medicare or defense spending to bring the deficit down (61 to 30 percent).

Interestingly enough, if you peer into the numbers, you’ll find that these voters would actually prefer cutting defense spending to cutting Social Security and Medicare. In fact, cutting the spending on those two programs was the least popular solution with the respondents of all the options presented to them.

For more details including crosstabs, check out the poll at

Who will speak for women?

In Political world on March 28, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Here’s a shout out to Lynn Parramore of New Deal 2.0, whose Saturday post, Our Grandmothers, Ourselves: Social Security Under Fire, eloquently spoke to a matter of concern regarding the president’s Fiscal Commission:

Amid the myths and fear-mongering, women have a particular reason to be on high alert. We rely on Social Security more than men, but are getting sidelined in decision-making.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission has been created to propose ways to reduce the current deficit, including possible cuts to Social Security. But there is only one woman among his five appointees, Alice Rivlin. And there is only one woman, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, among all the other appointments made by McConnell, Reid, Boehner, and Pelosi. Two women out of 18 appointees? That’s 11 percent. It’s an outrage, considering that women represent 57 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries age 62 and older, and 69 percent of beneficiaries age 85 and older.

Why aren’t women invited to the table when our economic security is being decided?

Women’s participation in the workforce has skyrocketed since the 1950s, but it seems to have settled at around 70 percent for married women of working age (higher for single women), still far below the rates for working age men (over 90 percent). The incontrovertible fact is that women alone have babies, and they still bear the primary burden of childcare. Most women still leave the workforce after having children for at least a short time, and many leave for years. This means that women usually get lower Social Security benefits than they would have received if they had worked steadily, as most men do. And yet we live longer, and often have special burdens caring for children and grandchildren.

The lack of women on the Fiscal Commission is particularly insulting given that it was a woman who worked tirelessly to bring us Social Security in the first place. It was Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt’s indomitable Secretary of Labor, who was responsible for encouraging FDR to include Social Security as part of the New Deal and benefit us all with one of the greatest pieces of social reform in American history. We can’t allow deficit hawks and Wall Street greed to shred the critical social safety net that this inspirational woman, often called “FDR’s conscience,” managed to weave amid fear-mongering just as fierce in her day as it is in ours. Obama, are you listening?

Congress, are you listening? Country, are you listening?

Crocodile tears over a “crisis”

In Legislation on March 26, 2010 at 9:15 am

Alarmist news reports of the Congressional Budget Office’s pronouncement Wednesday that the Social Security Administration will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes have hit the front pages.

Yesterday, the New York Times headline read, “Social Security To See Payout Exceed Pay-In, At Tipping Point Years Ahead of Projection.” The reporter, Mary Williams Walsh, goes on to say: “The long-term costs of Social Security present further problems for politicians, who are already struggling over how to reduce the nation’s debt.”

But it seems politicians aren’t the only ones struggling; reporters seem to have a hard time understanding the way the Social Security system works.

Here are a few things important to keep in mind:

  • Social Security is an INSURANCE program, not a welfare program. That was an important feature of the program as initially conceived of by Frances Perkins and FDR, and remains so today.
  • Social Security trust fund currently holds $2.5 trillion in U.S. Government bonds. These investments are yours and mine, bought with our payments into the system. The trust fund earns interest on those bonds, and has additional income from earmarked income taxes.
  • Every year the Social Security trustees, and now the CBO as well, make projections about the future finances of Social Security. These forecasts change annually as the economy changes. Last year’s annual report of the trustees predicted that the unemployment rate would be 8.2 percent in 2009 and 8.8 percent in 2010. Unfortunately, that turns out to have been optimistic.
  • Ironically, while Social Security’s revenue has dropped due to unemployment, the benefits it provides have undoubtedly buoyed our sinking economy by providing a secure flow of income that finds its way into our Main Streets’ businesses.
  • Without any changes, the system is predicted to remain solvent until 2037.

The Times article ends with a quote by Alan Greenspan, who says, “Even if the trust fund level goes down, there’s no action required, until the level of the trust fund gets to zero. At that point you have to cut benefits, because benefits have to equal receipts.”

Not so. You can cut benefits, raise revenue, or do both. But why let the trust fund–remember, now at $2.5 trillion–get down to zero? There is plenty of time between today and 2037 to make small adjustments that will have a big payoff in the long run.

In an article on, reporter Douglas McIntyre hyperventilates:

The end game for Social Security may be that future American retirees won’t get that social safety net they had counted on, at least compared to what was available in the past.

Beware of those who show too much concern–crocodile tears–over the “fate” of Social Security. They’re likely to be the ones who say, “We had to destroy the [program] in order to save it.”

To put it all in perspective, in the Hill today,

Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, dismissed the idea that Social Security faces a crisis.

“9.7 percent unemployment is a crisis. Millions of people losing their home is a crisis,” he said. “The possibility that we might have to raise taxes somewhere in the next three decades is a trivial concern by comparison. Only someone too lost to recognize an $8 trillion housing bubble would worry about Social Security right now.”

1935, 1965, 2010 — a nation accepts its responsibilities

In Legislation, Legislation Today on March 23, 2010 at 12:18 pm

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935; Medicare in 1965. Today we celebrate the signing of the next step that will greatly improve the quality of life for all Americans.

Obama signs the health care bill

Click on the picture to watch the ceremony.

Although Frances Perkins and FDR wanted to include national health care in the Social Security Act, it has taken 75 years to get some form of health care for all enacted in the U.S. Medicare transformed life for America’s seniors but didn’t cover those not in that category. While some may be unhappy with the limits of the new legislation–it’s not “Medicare for All”–it is an important step forward, for several reasons.

Robert Reich, in his essay, How healthcare reform makes history, says it very well:

This isn’t a return to the New Deal or the Great Society. It’s an incremental step forward, with big implications.

The significance of Obama’s health legislation is more political than substantive. For the first time since Ronald Reagan told America government is the problem, Obama’s health bill reasserts that government can provide a major solution. In political terms, that’s a very big deal.

For the first time since Ronald Reagan told America government is the problem, Obama’s health bill reasserts that government can provide a major solution. In political terms, that’s a very big deal.

We will not return to the New Deal or the Great Society, but nor will we continue to wallow in the increasingly obsolete Reagan view that we don’t need a strong and competent government. Yesterday’s vote confirms our hope that we can have both strength and competence in Washington. It is an audacious hope, but we have no choice.

Here is a great quote from Obama’s speech: “We are not a nation that scales back its aspirations… We are a nation that faces its challenges and accepts its responsibilities.”

Frances Perkins would applaud that sentiment.

Thinkin’ ’bout social justice

In General on March 19, 2010 at 10:19 am

Click on the picture to view the clip.

Update: Frances Perkins Center board member Sarah Peskin pointed out the wording of the New York Times alert about Sunday’s vote on the health care bill: “Democrats hailed the votes as historic, comparable to the establishment of Medicare and Social Security and a long overdue step forward in social justice.”

Frances Perkins Center seeks personal stories for historic collection

In General, Programs on March 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm

A Grant from National Academy of Social Insurance supports “Celebrating Social Security—In Our Own Words!

The Frances Perkins Center has received a grant from the National Academy of Social Insurance through funds provided by the Ford Foundation to create a multimedia celebration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of Social Security. Part of the project includes a national competition for personal stories about the effect of this landmark federal program on the lives of Americans.

More than 51 million Americans today are recipients of Social Security, a program created during the Great Depression by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help people needing financial assistance. The program’s foremost champion was FDR’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, a former social worker who had observed the distress of elderly people no longer able to work and the desperate poverty of orphaned children and families that lose a breadwinner.

The enactment of Social Security in 1935 ushered in, for the first time, the experience of the “Golden Years” for retirees, and today more than 90 percent of older Americans receive Social Security benefits. For more than a third of them, it is their sole source of income. Social Security is also a vital safety net for the disabled and for children who lose a parent or are orphaned.

This program transformed the country, allowing Americans to lead more secure lives than in any other century in American history. Social Security benefits are more important than ever amid the current economic downturn, providing a dependable monthly income that recipients then spend in local stores and businesses.

The Frances Perkins Center will celebrate Social Security’s 75th anniversary year by highlighting the ways the program has been an essential anchor for economic security and stability for American families  through the telling of personal stories. The best essays will be selected for posting on the Frances Perkins Center website and other social networking sites, and about 20 will be nominated for publication in Celebrating Social Security–In Our Own Words! The project will feature essays from today’s leading authorities on the program, including historians, policy experts, celebrities, elected officials, economists, and academics. “The personal stories from everyday people are what will bring the program to life for readers,” says the Center’s executive director, Barbara Burt. “The history is important, but the essays are what will make the collection compelling to read.”

Essays should be no longer than 400 words. Writers must include their name, address, telephone number and email address, and be willing to allow their work to be widely publicized. Email entries are preferred and should be sent to with “Social Security Essay” in the subject line. Entries can also be sent by mail to: Social Security Essay Contest, Frances Perkins Center, PO Box 281, Newcastle, Maine 04553-0281.

Social Security foes named to president’s Fiscal Commission

In Legislation Today, Political world on March 12, 2010 at 5:38 pm

As feared, the Republican picks for the deficit commission are avowed opponents of Social Security. House Minority Leader Boehner has named Reps. Dave Camp (MI), Paul Ryan (WI) and Jeb Hensarling (TX) to join the 18-member commission. Ryan has already made his position clear with his earlier-released  “Budget Roadmap,” which Jonathan Chait in the New Republic characterized this way:

Ryan’s plan would make the federal tax code regressive, especially at the top, on top of an already-regressive state and local tax base. According to the Tax Policy Center, the richest 1% of all taxpayers, who earn more than 21% of the national income and currently pay about 25% of federal taxes, would pay 13% of federal taxes under Ryan’s plan. (Ryan’s response argues that the corporate income tax he’d eliminate is already born by consumers anyway, a contention most economists including the CBO reject, and even if true would only chip away slightly at the overall critique of his plan’s regressive nature.) Ryan’s tax plan alone would amount to the greatest shift of resources from the non-rich to the rich in the history of the United States, by far.

And that is just the beginning. Ryan would impose a series of dramatic social policy changes that would all push in the same direction. He would blow up the employer-based health care system, pushing workers into an under-regulated individual market. Instead of sharing medical risk with their fellow employees, they’d bear it entirely by themselves, which would be good for the healthy but bad for the sick. He would convert Social Security into primarily a network of individual investment accounts [my emphasis]–meaning that some workers would do well and others poorly. And he would convert Medicare into a voucher system, capping the value of each voucher at well below the rate of medical inflation, which would make the elderly bear a far greater share of medical risk.

It seemed as though Ryan’s Republican colleagues were distancing themselves from his plan, but now it has been fully legitimized by his appointment to the commission.

On the Senate side, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has named Senators Gregg (NH), Crapo (ID) and Coburn (OK) to the commission. Gregg and Crapo are known fiscal hawks.

We await the word on Speaker Pelosi’s three appointees.Here’s what USAToday said at 3:15 this afternoon:

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the speaker “is discussing with a number of members who have expressed interest in serving on the commission because of their commitment to fiscal responsibility. The speaker will make those appointments when she has completed those discussions.”

Commitment to fiscal responsibility? What about commitment to social responsibility? So far, out of the 15 named to the commission, only one is a woman and none are non-white. More than half of Social Security recipients are women, and certainly more than zero of recipients are non-white. Only two of those commission members named so far are known to be strong supporters of Social Security. It looks like the fate of this hugely important and successful program is in the hands of a group of officials who hold it in disdain.

The program’s defenders, like us, have a big fight on our hands. Who will be today’s Frances Perkins to lead the battle for our side?

Kirstin Downey wows Boston audience

In Biography, Events on March 12, 2010 at 2:17 pm

[Written by Frances Perkins Center board member Sarah Peskin.]

Perkins Center board member Kirstin Downey addressed a standing room only crowd at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston on Wednesday March 10, 2010 for a public lecture on The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.  In his introductory comments, MHS president Dennis Fiore gave a nice plug for the Center and invited our Maine contingent to identify ourselves — thus giving Barb Burt and me a chance to work the crowd later, to give out brochures, answer questions, and invite audience members to sign the guestbook and peruse our website.  We set FPC bookmarks at the book signing table and they were snapped up by eager buyers who quickly exhausted the full supply of newly-released paperbacks delivered for the occasion.

Downey asked participants if they had known about Frances Perkins before coming to the lecture, and praised them for being relatively well-informed when most of the hands were raised in the affirmative.  She went on to cite Perkins’s many landmark achievements, noting that FP “wasn’t looking for fame” and was more interested in getting things done than in taking credit.  Reminding us that 52 million Americans now receive Social Security benefits and another 10 million unemployment compensation thanks to FP’s direct personal efforts, Downey posed the question:  How did she do so much?

Other topics highlighted in the talk included Perkins’s key role in establishing the WPA which in turn created so much of the physical infrastructure (bridges, dams, tunnels, highways) that allowed the US economy to boom in the 1950s and 60s, and the Civilian Conservation Corps that made lasting improvements to state and national parks while putting young people to work in the 1930s.

Downey also spoke about her use of a collection of letters from the “brilliant young lawyer Charles Wyzanski, the department’s new solicitor of labor” describing his alarm as early as 1933 when he travelled to Germany and saw persecution of trade unionists, Jews, and intellectuals in many fields. These eyewitness reports prompted Perkins to devote considerable energies, along with other FDR advisors, to quietly easing immigration restrictions so that thousands needing refuge could enter the US.  This little known but fascinating history was pieced together by Downey by following clues triggered by the Massachusetts Historical Society Wyzanski letters, several of which were displayed in a case in the lecture room for the event.

Barb and I greeted old and new friends and made several contacts worth pursuing.  I was so proud to be associated with this thoughtful and well-presented event.  Thanks go to Jayne Gordon of the MHS for planning and coordinating the evening.  It was a great success. Kirstin spoke the next day at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and is scheduled to address the Organization of American Historians on April 9, 2010 in DC.  Go to her website for other stops on what looks like a very tiring book tour.

Pressure on Pelosi regarding her commission picks

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2010 at 2:34 pm

On Monday we sent out an email to friends of the Frances Perkins Center asking people to write to Speaker Pelosi and urge her to choose three staunch supporters of Social Security for the president’s fiscal [deficit] commission. You can read why here.

There’s some news on that front–evidently the Blue Dogs are trying to pressure her to give them a seat on the commission. In return for what? A yes vote on the healthcare bill, perhaps?

So, if you were thinking of writing to Speaker Pelosi about her choices, please do it today. There isn’t a minute to waste!

March 10, 2010 – 1:33 p.m.

Blue Dogs Push for Seat on Fiscal Commission

Leaders of the fiscally conservative House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition have asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint at least one member of their group to the president’s fiscal commission.

“As Blue Dogs, we strongly supported this commission as a necessary mechanism to tackle the fiscal challenges we face,” leaders of the 54-member group said in a letter to Pelosi. “We believe a member of the Blue Dog Coalition would bring the invaluable contributions and a critical perspective to the recommendations sent to Congress before the end of the year.”

The coalition is made up of centrist Democrats who have made deficit reduction and balanced budgets their organizing principle. Many represent districts that are prime targets for Republicans this fall, and they are bracing for GOP attacks on their party.

Pelosi has so far kept close counsel on whom she will select for the panel. There is a lot of interest among the rank-and-file in serving on the panel, aides said.

Read the entire article here.

It’s up to you and Speaker Pelosi

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

It’s up to you and Speaker Pelosi to protect Social Security.

If you signed our petition against the Conrad-Gregg Deficit Commission, or attended our January 14th conference in New York, or have watched the videos of the panel discussions on our web site, you know that there is a move afoot in Washington to blame the current federal deficit on Social Security. The program’s foes are using this as an excuse to suggest raising the retirement age, changing the program from an insurance program for all to a welfare program for the indigent, or cutting benefits in other ways.

While our petition signers and thousands of other private citizens, along with more than 60 national groups, managed to defeat the Conrad-Gregg proposal, President Obama has created a similar commission through executive order. Its co-chairs are retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson, a longtime foe of Social Security who called the program’s beneficiaries “greedy geezers” back in 1995, and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. You can read more about the commission on this blog.

Based on the commission’s rules, Social Security will need to have at least five strong advocates on the commission (out of the total of 18 members) to block benefit cuts and potential dismemberment of the program. Of the nine members named so far, only two, Senator Dick Durbin and SEIU President Andy Stern, are known to be staunch defenders of Social Security. Of the nine remaining to be named, six will come from the ranks of Congressional Republicans, not likely to be supporters. It’s up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make her three choices from those who will fight to maintain Social Security benefits.

We have written a letter to Speaker Pelosi, urging her to choose carefully and wisely:

Dear Speaker Pelosi:

In the year of the 75th anniversary of Social Security–the centerpiece in the array of transformative social programs instituted by President Roosevelt and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins–we are concerned that this most successful government program is under attack.

Deficit hawks in Congress and inside the Beltway have found that Social Security is a fine scapegoat for the deficit, even though the program has contributed nothing to the current deficit. To the contrary, Social Security has helped to keep our country from falling into a Depression by providing income to millions of people who would otherwise be destitute. As you surely know, more than one-third of all people 65 and older rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income.

The fiscal commission formed by President Obama’s executive order contains a number of known foes of Social Security. Some of them have stated, even before the commission has convened, that their goal is to reduce Social Security benefits or cut the program in some substantial way.

As House Speaker, you will choose three of the committee’s members. We urge you to select three representatives who understand and care deeply about the needs of working and retired Americans and their families, three members who will fight any efforts to raise the retirement age, lower benefits, drop benefits for children and spouses, enact an income cut-off, privatize, or in any other way diminish this great American program that has improved life for millions of Americans and been such a shining example of American values.

We know you hold these values and the program that embodies them as a sacred trust with the American people. Please ensure that your three choices will be a bulwark against the efforts of those who don’t share that trust or those values.

Respectfully yours,

Barbara Burt, Executive Director

The Frances Perkins Center

Let Speaker Pelosi know how you feel about protecting Social Security today. Please write your own letter or feel free to adapt and personalize this one. You can send it to Speaker Pelosi at

Thank you for your help. Your voice makes a difference.