Congress has 65 Million Reasons to Protect and Defend Social Security
The successful, popular government program is under attack
Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law eighty-five years ago, widespread bipartisan support in Congress and among the American people has existed for what may be the most important, consequential legislation in the history of the United States.
Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower — in a candid letter to his brother in 1954 — famously wrote: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
In an address to staff at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore in 1962, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and “Mother of Social Security,” Frances Perkins, stated: “Social Security is so firmly embedded in the American psychology today that no politician, no political party, no political group could possibly destroy this Act and still maintain our democratic system. It is safe. It is safe forever, and for the everlasting benefit of the people of the United States.”
The people and conditions of which Eisenhower and Perkins spoke may have found their moment.
In an unprecedented move that might have far-reaching consequences for Social Security and our democratic system of government, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order that creates a payroll tax “holiday.” The stated reason the order was issued was to “put money directly in the pockets of American workers and generate additional incentives for work and employment.” According to the nonpartisan Committee For A Responsible Federal Budget, the three-month payroll tax cut ordered by Trump could amount to $100 billion in payments to the Social Security Trust Fund being delayed. This “delay” might be permanent, because reimbursement of the Trust Fund is not clearly defined. President Trump also said that, if reelected, he would “terminate” FICA contributions, which fund both Social Security and Medicare.
For years, Trump has repeatedly promised to not touch Social Security. With his executive order and termination statement, that promise has been shattered. For eighty-five years, Social Security has been a sacred compact among workers, employers, and the government. The actions by the Trump administration endanger that compact.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the incentive to work and hire largely comes from how safe workers, employers, and ultimately customers feel — not through traditional economic norms and certainly not through a payroll tax suspension. The unemployment numbers lay out this undeniable truth. Since the start of the pandemic, 51 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits and an estimated 31 million still rely on them. On top of this dismal news, ten million jobs may be forever lost, with almost 50 percent of those laid off believing they will have no job to return to, even when the pandemic is under control. The crisis we face has little to do with take-home pay and everything to do with millions having no pay at all.
Expanding unemployment insurance provides critical relief, as health and safety steps are taken to combat this pandemic. Only then will true economic recovery occur. Usurping funds reserved for two critical programs — Social Security and Medicare — is not an economic recovery measure American workers and employers need or want.
Congress must unequivocally draw a line in the sand on where they stand on Social Security. The stakes are too high for over 65 million seniors, people with disabilities, and survivors of deceased workers, who rely on Social Security for a measure of economic security. Congressional support for Social Security must be as overwhelming as was the vote to create the program eight-five years ago. Otherwise, by default, Congress will be opening the door for the most successful, trusted government program in our nation’s history to be dismantled.
James Roosevelt Jr. is the Grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. He is also a former Associate Commissioner at the Social Security Administration.
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall is the Grandson of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.
William Arnone is the Chief Executive Officer, founding Board Member, and former Board Chair of the National Academy of Social Insurance.