Just as nothing can replace the sounds of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole at Christmastime, for Democrats, it just isn’t campaign season without the familiar chorus charging Republicans with threatening to destroy Social Security. The 2016 cover of this classic has a slight twist: Republican calls to reform Social Security aren’t just being cast as an attack on the elderly, they’re also a part of the “War on Women.” As Helaine Olen put it in Slate:
In national politics, the war on women isn’t always about denying women the right to choose to end a pregnancy or to have health insurance pay for contraception. It’s also about denying women their financial dignity.
Such shameless demagoguery needs to be rejected by Americans of all political stripes. If we want a serious discussion about the issues, we need people to talk about them without being labelled sexist. Using women to try to shut down needed conversations about reforming our financially-troubled entitlement programs is insulting and ultimately contrary to women’s true interests: Women deserve to hear a factual discussion about our options for preserving important aspects of our nation’s safety net.
First, let’s set a few facts straight: Republican candidates who propose reforming Social Security aren’t actually trying to rob Grandma of her daily sustenance. Rather, they’re acknowledging what every honest budget analyst knows to be true: Social Security is running a deficit and changes must be made to ensure its long-term financial health. Most conservative plans to reform Social Security focus on slowing the rate of growth of future benefits for future retirees. Moreover, they are designed to make the benefit system more progressive. That means that while some higher-income seniors would see payments reduced, the safety net would be preserved—and in many cases strengthened—for low-income seniors who need it most.
After all, while many elderly women and men rely on Social Security to make ends meet, millions of others don’t. Wealthy seniors certainly deserve Social Security benefits—after all, they did pay into the system throughout their working lives with the promise that they’d receive retirement payments—but if we have to make changes to keep the system afloat, it makes sense to ask wealthy seniors to take a reduced monthly payment from taxpayers.
One would think that liberals would applaud this—many of these same seniors would be vilified as part of that evil “one percent” in other conversations—but somehow, while it is okay to always want to raise taxes on the rich, through the progressive lens, it’s the height of cruelty to consider scaling back their government entitlement payments.
The actual financial realities of Social Security, however, aren’t what’s most concerning in discussion about this issue. Social Security’s biggest challenge is that it appears nearly impossible for policymakers to have a reasoned conversation about our options given the political climate where name-calling and charges of sexism and racism drowned out boring old facts.
Certainly, liberals hold no monopoly on base campaigning and over-wrought rhetoric. Yet when it comes to budget matters, the Left holds an important, destructive advantage that conservatives struggle to overcome. Liberals proposing more government spending can point to people receiving those payments—the women getting more generous benefit checks, businesses with new government grants—while ignoring the costs. Capturing the just-as-real costs–the jobs not created, the money taken from average families’ paychecks because of higher taxes, the small businesses going under because their politically-connected competitors just got another sweetheart deal from Uncle Sam–is much harder to put into compelling visuals.
Social Security’s retirement system will run a deficit of about $45 billion this year. That deficit will explode to more than $160 billion in ten years.
I can try to tell you why that should concern you—how it will make it more difficult for us to maintain a safety net that’s critical for poor elderly people in the future, as well as make it harder for your children to climb the economic ladder and provide for your future grandchildren—but that’s a conversation that takes a little time. Sadly, chanting about the “war on women” and plans to “push grandma off the cliff” make such needed discussion much less likely, and we are all likely to be worse off as a result.