WASHINGTON -- Social Security is not in crisis.
For the next 25 years, Social Security’s Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance trust funds are 100 percent solvent, and beyond that window, 90 percent solvent for two more decades. But to many people on both sides of the aisle in this election year, actuarial realities do not matter as much as even dubious political claims.
Policymakers on the left and right discuss the need to “fix” Social Security. And some commentators are quick to brand any talk about the solid finances of Social Security as demagoguery.
Polls Show Voters Oppose Cuts
The political rhetoric not only runs counter to actuarial projections of the program, but it also contradicts public opinion: a poll released during the supercommittee deliberations in Congress last fall showed that 81 percent of voters opposed cuts to Social Security (and Medicare), and even 76 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters did not want to see cuts to these programs included in a deficit reduction deal.
Why, then, the desire to cut benefits or raise the retirement age? Indeed, the fate of Social Security may hinge more on the fate and evolution of democracy in the United States, rather than with the droll accounting of its economic projections.
As Nancy Altman wonderfully described in her book The Battle for Social Security, the bitter struggle to get the program up and running defined a generation committed to fight for the right to be “free from want,” especially when many people were losing faith in democracy to fulfill its promises in the backdrop of the Great Depression.
Today, against what seems to be a protracted economic malaise, elements of the democratic process are increasingly weakened, as many lawmakers use legislation for obstruction and not policymaking – especially with respect to the future of Social Security.
The U.S. political landscape, where bipartisanship was once possible and even sought after, is experiencing a shift in the political discourse. This shift is plainly evident in the politics and the demographics behind the program.
Fewer Voters Among Non-Whites
As the largest benefit program in the federal government, Social Security—which covers 94 percent of workers—acts as a good reflecting pool for the United States population.
In particular, as immigrants change the demographics of the country, cuts in Social Security benefits would disproportionately affect communities of color, who rely more on Social Security pensions for their income, according to Meizhu Lui, of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
Even for people of color who have taken residence in the United States for a generation, it is still difficult to throw their political support behind Social Security.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only 43 percent of Latinos in the United States and 53 percent of Asians here are eligible to vote, because of youth and non-citizenship, compared with 78 percent of white and 67 percent of black voters are eligible to do so.
These factors increasingly weaken the democratic decision-making processes of the American political system as new generations of Americans are increasingly disenfranchised by obstacles to their transition into American society, and more ominously, by the overriding influence of money politics over active participation.
The new Super PAC system also makes accountability difficult, which, combined with a narrower decision-making process, could make for an unstable mix.
At a time when the voices of those who will be most affected by changes to Social Security have been drowned out by the interests of a small—but wealthy—group, any changes to the program now will have an impact on the changing demographics of the future.
This commentary first appeared on the website of the nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI). Eloy Fisher, a doctoral candidate in economics at the New School of Social Research in New York City, is a former Fulbright Scholar from Panama and aide at the Panamanian embassy in New York, during Panama’s rotation on the U.N. Security Council. He was one of six students and young professionals awarded a scholarship to attend NASI’s recent policy research conference, in Washington, D.C.