By Rep. Susan A. Davis
Recent reports about the national debt have mistakenly conflated benefits from Social Security and Medicare with the national debt. Let’s be clear, Social Security and Medicare are not drivers of the national debt.
Much of this argument comes from opponents to Social Security and Medicare. They blame these programs and imply that our national-debt issue will be solved by “entitlement reform.” Keep in mind, to opponents of Social Security and Medicare, reform means cutting benefits, privatizing or ending the programs all together.
When opponents refer to these programs as “entitlements,” it’s an effort to suggest recipients are receiving something they have not earned. In reality, Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries are entitled to these benefits because they paid into the system most of their lives.
Social Security and Medicare are promises that were made decades ago to help our seniors live out their retirement years with the respect and dignity they deserve. Breaking that promise would be detrimental to seniors and our economy.
Of course we must address the solvency issues of both programs and bring the debt to a manageable level. It will require taking a deep dive into this issue because it’s much more complicated than what is being portrayed.
Social Security for retirees is a trust fund virtually separate from the spending process. The Social Security Trust Fund is funded through payroll taxes, which more than 90 percent of all workers pay. The money that goes into the Trust Fund goes back out as benefits to our seniors.
According to the 2016 Annual Report from the Trustees of Social Security and Medicare, the Social Security Trust Fund currently has an asset reserve of $2.8 trillion and will be solvent through 2034. But we shouldn’t wait until then to make improvements in the program to ensure its viability.
The main challenge facing Social Security is a demographics issue. As the baby boomer generation gets older and retires, they will outnumber the working class 2 to 1. We need more workers.
Growing the economy, raising wages and promoting pay equality will not only improve the finances of Social Security and Medicare, it will be good for those workers paying into those programs.
Reducing benefits or privatizing is not the solution, and it’s breaking the promise we made. It would only hurt seniors and would not significantly reduce the national debt. Without Social Security, more than 40 percent of California seniors would be living in poverty.
Nationwide, 38 million seniors rely on Social Security. Cutting benefits would plunge millions into poverty and would have a negative impact on our economy. Let’s not forget that the Social Security payments to seniors go right back into our economy in the form of rent, groceries, gas, etc.
When it comes to Medicare, increasing health care costs are a concern. Getting overall health care costs under control is a priority not just for Medicare, but also for everyone with health insurance. But again, it is not the main driver of the national debt.
The increase in the national debt is basically the result of three things:
- The Bush tax cuts, which cost about $2 trillion (maybe more). These tax cuts were unnecessary, benefited the wealthiest Americans, and weren’t paid for. I opposed them for these reasons.
- Two wars that have cost about $4 trillion to $6 trillion.
- A prescription drug benefit that wasn’t paid for, costing about $60 billion a year.
The national debt was further exacerbated by the Great Recession, which dramatically reduced revenue into the general fund.
No one is saying that we don’t need to address all of these issues and govern responsibly when it comes to the budget. But let’s not fall for the line that critical programs such as Social Security and Medicare are the main drivers of the national debt. They are promises that were made and promises that should be kept.
—Rep. Susan A. Davis represents Congressional District 53, which includes including the San Diego communities of Old Town, Kensington, Mission Hills, University Heights, Hillcrest Bankers Hill, North Park, South Park, Talmadge and Normal Heights, as well as La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and parts of El Cajon and Chula Vista.