Opinion

Watch out, grandpa! Republicans are coming for your Social Security.

The Republican Congress takes aim at Social Security

Hey, Rand Paul, why don't you tell us how you really feel?

Last week, the junior senator from Kentucky mocked people on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD), suggesting their ailments are not worthy:

What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting your disability check. Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club… Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts. Everybody over 40 has a little back pain. [Huffington Post]

This is just the prelude to the GOP's plan to roll back the whole of Social Security. Paul’s remarks are part of a PR campaign to portray the program as riddled with lazy deadbeats and cheats.

Don't believe me? Earlier this month, the Republican Congress adopted a rule change regarding the disability portion of Social Security. It has occasionally run short of money, which last happened in 1994 and will happen again in late 2016. Typically, the disability side is topped up with money from the (much larger) general Social Security funds. But Republicans have changed the rules to prevent this, which means disability payments will be cut by a fifth when the money runs out.

Now, they’re beginning to argue this is a great time to “reform” the system as a whole:

One of the co-sponsors of the rule change, Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), said that his intention was to "force us to look for a long-term solution" to the disability program. But the rule itself says it will allow a revenue transfer if the "overall health" of Social Security, encompassing both the retirement and disability programs, is improved. That's what Democrats are warning about, but some conservative analysts who have consulted with House staffers are also hoping that the GOP uses the threat of benefits cuts to go big. [Talking Points Memo]

If you examine the history of conservative animosity towards Social Security, as Dylan Scott does in a great piece, the long game here is obvious. Conservatives hated the program when it started, tried to abolish it for a generation, rolled it back slightly when it became firmly politically entrenched, and tried to privatize it in the Bush years. Conservative activists have been plotting this move for years.

The political entrenchment of Social Security explains the slyness of their tactics today. Social Security is one of the most popular programs in the country, and attempting to privatize it was a political disaster for Bush. Thus, passing bill after bill scrapping the program altogether a la ObamaCare would be committing political suicide. Much better to use a manufactured funding crisis to force a complicated political bargain that most people don’t understand. Better still to maneuver Democrats into accepting cuts, and then blame them for it and run against them on the issue.

Let’s look at the policy. Are conservatives right about SSDI being riddled with fraud, as an episode of This American Life squirmily argued two years ago? They are not. As a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analysis shows, the increase in disability payments is mainly due to demographic factors. There is little fraud in the program (in reality, a large majority of applicants are rejected). The program doesn’t pay out much per beneficiary. And the general Social Security fund can top up the disability fund with only a tiny overall effect.

How about Social Security in general? Contrary to Republican anti-tax zealotry, the problem with Social Security is that it is not nearly generous enough. American retirement security used to rest on pensions, the 401(k) system, and Social Security. The first of those is almost dead, the second has been an utter failure, and the third is simply not big enough to provide a genuine retirement for most people. Boosting the program substantially would be simple and good policy.

Many years ago, it was widely accepted that as our country got richer, we could afford to work less as a whole. Disabled people could be kept out of poverty, and old people could retire. But conservatives are increasingly abandoning this idea. There is no reason Paul’s logic about the disabled couldn’t be applied to retirees, too. Can your grandma stack shelves at Walmart? Maybe she should, the lazy parasite.

In reality, we can easily afford to boost Social Security. Indeed, we can easily afford to eliminate poverty altogether. That we don’t is a political choice, nothing more.

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