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For a generation now, working families have been squeezed by stagnant wages and rising costs for housing, health care, and college. Even as families have cut back on expenses for things like food, clothing, furniture, and appliances, it hasn't always been enough; many have been forced to take on more and more debt just to pay for necessities.
One major consequence of these increasing pressures on working people is that the dream of a secure retirement is slowly slipping away. Families haven't been able to save as much as they used to, and only 18 percent of private-sector workers have defined benefit pensions today compared with 35 percent two decades ago. Forty-four million workers have no workplace retirement savings plan.
With less savings and weaker private retirement protection, retirees depend more than ever on the safety and reliability of Social Security. Social Security also protects retirees' spouses and children, disabled workers, and family members who survive the death of the family's earner. Whenever I visit senior centers in places like Malden and Medford, I hear from retirees about how much they rely on Social Security benefits to make ends meet. Here in Middlesex County alone, 236,275 people receive Social Security benefits.
Social Security works; no one runs out of benefits and the guaranteed payments don't rise and fall with the stock market. Two-thirds of seniors rely on it for the majority of their income in retirement, and for 14 million seniors, this is the safety net that keeps them out of poverty. And yet, instead of taking on the retirement crisis, instead of strengthening Social Security, some in Washington are actually fighting to cut benefits.
The most recent discussion about cutting benefits has focused on something called the chained CPI. Supporters of the chained CPI say that it's a more accurate way of measuring cost of living increases for seniors. That statement is simply not true. Chained CPI falls short of the actual increases in costs that seniors face, pure and simple. Chained CPI is just a fancy way of saying "cut benefits."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a measure of the real impact of inflation on seniors, called the CPI-E. If we adopted CPI-E today, it would generally increase benefits for our retirees, not cut them.
This is just one example of how the national debate about Social Security is starting in the wrong place. The fact is that today, Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next 20 years and even after that will continue to pay most benefits through the end of the century. With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years, and could even increase benefits.
The tools to build a future are available to us now. We don't start the debate by deciding who gets kicked to the curb. We are Americans. We start the debate by figuring out how to create better efficiencies, how to make small changes that will make the system fairer, how to grow the pool of those who contribute, how to rebuild a system that every single one of us can rely on to make sure that there is a baseline in retirement that no one falls below.
Social Security isn't the answer to all of our retirement problems. We need to find ways to tackle the financial squeeze that is crushing our families. We need to help families start saving again. We need to make sure that more workers have access to better pensions. But in the meantime, so long as these problems continue to exist and so long as we are in the midst of a real and growing retirement crisis -- a crisis that is shaking the foundations of what was once a vibrant and secure middle class -- the absolute last thing we should be doing is talking about cutting back on Social Security. The absolute last thing we should do in 2013 - at the very moment that Social Security has become the principal lifeline for millions of our seniors -- is allow the program to begin to be dismantled inch by inch.
The decisions we make about Social Security benefits are not just about math. At their core, these decisions are about our values. I believe we must honor our promises, make good on a system that millions of people paid into faithfully throughout their working years, and support the right of every person to retire with dignity and that means protecting and expanding Social Security.