Will Social Security Be the Next Deficit Hawk Prey?

Social Security is 90 percent of income for a third of black and Latino seniors.

By Seth Freed Wessler Aug 18, 2010

Social Security turned 75 last week (along with unemployment insurance). President Obama celebrated the program’s birthday by vowing to fight against privatizing it, an idea that was supposed to have disappeared when George W. Bush left office. It didn’t die though. That’s because when Obama set up his Social Security commission, tasked with figuring out how to keep the program alive for the next few generations, he appointed a bunch of anti-benefit conservatives who want to raise the Social Security age at least five years–and privatize it.

One of the panel members is Republican Rep. Paul Ryan. He recently came out with a proposal to set up private social security savings accounts. As Think progress reports, "A Center for American Progress Action Fund analysis found that under a Bush-style privatization plan, an October 2008 retiree would have lost $26,000 in the market plunge of that year."

That would seem to be enough to make this idea too crazy to even talk about. And indeed, this might have been Obama’s intention when he set up the panel: let the crazies get their crazy out and then move on, leaving Social Security in tact.

But the program is too vital to take that kind of risk.

According to data recently crunched by the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security is keeping 20 million people from falling below the poverty line. The majority of them are over 65, though more than 1 million children and 5 million adults under 65 would be poor as well without Social Security. CBPP reports:

About 6 million children under age 18 (8 percent of all U.S. children) lived in families that received income from Social Security in 2008. That number included over 3 million children who received their own benefits as dependents of retired, disabled, or deceased workers, as well as others who lived with parents or relatives who received Social Security benefits. In all, Social Security lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty in 2008.

Blacks and Latinos are more likely to rely on social security to provide the bulk of their income. For a third of blacks and Latinos over 65, Social Security provides 90 percent or more of their income. That’s compared to a quarter of whites.

And in 2007, when blacks were 12 percent of the population, 20 percent of the children receiving Social Security survivor benefits were black.

Women comprise 60 percent of all elderly folks lifted out of poverty by the program. They are far more likely than men to rely on Social Security for the bulk of their livelihoods, because women earn less than men and therefore save less.

All of which is why we ought to be frightened that Social Security is becoming the next target of congressional deficit hawks. The Democrats’ recent track record on defending the safety net against such efforts are not strong. In their search for budget offsets, Senate Dems just stuck a tap right into the food stamp program before they went on vacation.

In light of diminishing benefits for families, Social Security must now be spread pretty thin, functioning not only as a vital safety net for the elderly but also for families without jobs and for whom cash assistance or unemployment benefits are not available. The possibility of cutting Social Security is just not an option. It should be given no time.