Don’t Mess with Social Security

December 23, 2011

By Roberta Guise

A longtime educator friend — I’ll call her Kathy — is in her 70s, still teaches and collects Social Security.

Although Kathy will tell you she’ll never stop working, the reality is she’ll have to quit at some point. When she does, she’ll be glad for the regular Social Security payment that’ll offset the high cost of living in San Francisco.

Her Social Security check accounts for a mere 30 percent of her income. Like many self-employed individuals, Kathy doesn’t have a 401K; when she retires she’ll be counting on her small Social Security benefit and savings if she outlives her husband, a self-employed consultant.

And therein lurks one of Social Security’s biggest secrets: It’s a woman’s issue. Without Social Security, more than half of elderly women would fall into poverty. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), key factors for poverty among older women are the wage gap, years spent in unpaid childcare, lack of access to a 401(K), care-giving to a spouse, and the fact that women tend to live longer.

Another little-known fact about Social Security: It pays more benefits to children than any other federal program, including welfare. More than 98 percent of American children are insured through Social Security against the loss of a parent.

Despite the program’s positive effects – especially to millions of women, children and the disabled – Social Security is under attack. Most of these attacks are unfounded. For example, conservative presidential candidate Rick Perry asserts that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, one in which young people paying into the system won’t ever see their benefit. He wants to get rid of the program. Other voices claim that Social Security is contributing to the nation’s deficit.

The truth is that Social Security, one of the nation’s best, most efficiently run antipoverty programs, isn’t running out of money. And with people like my friend Kathy still paying into the system, even while receiving benefits, its reserves will continue to grow.

Another misunderstood point: Social Security didn’t cause the deficit, and doesn’t contribute to the deficit. Instead, it’s an off-budget item funded not by taxes but by our own contributions. Need more proof? By law, Social Security cannot borrow to pay benefits, which means it can’t contribute to the deficit.

It has, however, been subject to government raids to pay for other programs. The most notable is the current payroll tax “holiday,” instituted as an attempt to stimulate the economy. This tax break will reduce the amount going into the program by $120 billion in 2011 alone.

Congress also redirects payroll taxes away from Social Security (FICA from employees and SECA from the self-employed). Most goes out immediately to pay retirees, but the rest is sent to the U.S. Treasury, where it’s spent on other programs. In return, Treasury sends the Social Security Administration an IOU called a “special issue” bond. Until Treasury repays the debt, the Social Security Trust Fund looks depleted.

To ensure that Social Security stays solvent, we need to back the positions of advocacy groups such as AAUW, who support reinstatement of the normal payroll-tax level and raising the cap on payroll taxed for Social Security purposes. As of now, only the first $106,800 of income is taxed.

And you can be sure that Kathy and millions like her who are working through their retirement will continue to pay into the Social Security Trust Fund, doing their small part to keep it healthy for generations to come.

Guise, founder of Guise Marketing & PR, advises women leaders and small business owners on development strategies. She is a Member of the American Association of University Women, San Francisco Branch.

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