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Mr. President: Don't Sell Out American Elders

Posted Jan 27 2012 8:30am

[UPDATE: I tried Midori's suggestion of using the email return on White House messages, but it goes to the same page at the White House website that limits messages to 2500 characters.

The shortened version that I sent the president really suffers for being cut in half but I had a mini-brainstorm: I've cut the original in half and resent it to the White House in two parts. Maybe someone will notice. Or not. Still, I've done my best.

[RONNI HERE: It wears me out that every few months President Barack Obama scares the bejesus out old people by saying something about "strengthening" Social Security which everyone knows is code for cutting it. He did it again in the State of the Union address so I sent him a severely edited version of this note - edited because the White House contact form allows only 2500 characters.

It is unlikely, among the thousands of letters sent to the White House, that anyone will read it, let alone respond or act on it. Still, I feel a little better.

Dear President Obama:

I am a 70-year-old Social Security and Medicare beneficiary. I publish a popular blog, Time Goes By, about what it's really like to get old.

You might enjoy stopping by sometime – - where you will find a large community of well-informed, thoughtful elders who pay a lot of attention to you, to politics in general and to the moves Washington makes on our two lifelines, Social Security and Medicare.

But to get to my point, in your State of the Union address Tuesday evening, you said this about Social Security:

"As I told the Speaker this summer, I'm prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors.

“But in return, we need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of Members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes...”

I worry every time I hear those words and you've been talking about “reform” of and “strengthening” Social Security since you took office. What concerns me the most is that a smart guy like you does not appear to understand the genius of the program's basic functioning as President Roosevelt set it up and how easily it can, with the wrong reforms (which we voters know is code for “cut”), be destroyed.

(I'm ignoring Medicare in this letter. It is a different kind of problem needing different solutions. But don't worry. I'll get back to you on that.)

Let's start with Social Security funding: You should know this and I'm pretty sure you do but just in case: Social Security has no relationship – none, zero, nada, zilch – with the nation's budget. Because it is self-funded through the dedicated payroll tax, by definition it cannot contribute to the nation's deficit.

It does not matter how many times Congressional Republicans (and a few ignorant Democrats) say differently: Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. It would be a very good thing if each time you make public statements about Social Security, you make sure to say that. Repetition works, you know.)

Because Social Security is not funded through the general revenue, it has been sacrosanct from budgetary battles in Congress for all its 75-plus years. That is, it was until last year when you signed the payroll tax holiday and when you extended it this year through February. That shortfall in uncollected Social Security payroll taxes is, as you well know, replaced in the trust fund from the general revenue.

And that is the first ever inroad to potentially cutting Social Security because it is not inconceivable that Congress, which holds the budget purse strings, can decide not to replace those funds. That you supported this move, Mr. President, is a big disappointment to me.

Even so, I'm pretty sure popular uproar would preclude such a theft, but the potentiality is there now. The seal on the door to the trust fund has been breached. That's scary if you're as old as I am – not just for me but all future generations who will need Social Security.

So, as politically useful as it is for you to call the payroll tax holiday a tax cut for the middle class, in reality it shortchanges Social Security and endangers the long term solvency of the program.

What you should be doing is raising the payroll tax by a percentage point or so (yes, even in these hard times) to ensure the program will be there past the next 20 years.

Because what rich people who do not need Social Security (but who are more than happy to take it for pocket change) do not understand is that without it, most Social Security beneficiaries would be living in cardboard boxes.

And by the way, it's not that we didn't try to save our own money for our old age. You perfectly well know – or should – that real wages have been flat for 30 years. For every raise people received during that time, inflation or health care or an emergency took more from their bank accounts.

Don't forget, too, that millions of old people lost trillions of dollars in life savings in the crash of 2008 and have no way to recoup. Personally, I lost a third of my modest savings and I'm among the luckiest for not having lost more.

Oh, and did I mention how many elders who planned to downsize from the large homes in which they raised their families cannot sell them now? Or are underwater? Or have been foreclosed upon – apparently illegally in many cases?

How many whammies is that against old people, Mr. President? I've lost count.

Elders cannot afford any cut to Social Security – and that includes the proposed reduction in the calculation of the cost-of-living adjustment which would affect current beneficiaries.

My appeal to you, Mr. President, is to get over this idea you apparently have to trade the program that modestly supports elders when their working lives are done for a bipartisan agreement to raise taxes on the wealthy.

I know you can't get those tax cuts in this Congress and you should know it too. But go ahead, give it a try. Just don't sell out America's elders in your attempt.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz: The Trouble with Four-Door Cars

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