We've been making the case for years that the proper approach to Social Security is to expand it -- increase benefits and bring more people into its embrace, including college-age survivors of deceased workers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has now made that point more forcibly than anyone before her. As the Democratic Party's most visible and influential progressive, she has reset the debate.
Fundamentally, Social Security currently keeps 20 million Americans out of poverty. It's the principal source of income for roughly half of all seniors. Their dependence on the program increases with age--nearly two-thirds of those 80 and older get more than than half their income from Social Security.
The plight of seniors is getting worse, and won't improve for coming generations. As AARP has documented, Americans ages 75 and older lost one-third of their household financial assets and one-sixth of their net worth in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.
The 75-plus generation is especially struggling to keep up. In contrast to other age groups, credit card debt among the oldest retirees has risen. From 2007 to 2010, AARP found, the percentage of families 75 and older with credit card balances rose from 18.8% to 21.7%; the rate fell in every other age group.
Meanwhile, the traditional pillars of a secure retirement have been kicked away--defined benefit pension plans, which insulate future retirees from the vagaries of the financial markets, now cover about a sixth of all workers, cut in half over the last two decades or so. They've been replaced by defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s, which expose those workers to potentially huge investment losses, as happened in 2008.
What was perhaps most striking about Warren's interview on MSNBC was that she reestablished Social Security at the center of America's progressive tradition. "This is partly about math," she said, "but it's partly about our values. This is about what kind of a people we are, what kind of a country we are trying to build." It's a country, she asserted, that believes that "fundamentally everyone should be able to retire with dignity."
Warren effectively demolished the conservative argument that Social Security faces a fiscal crisis. The program is financially secure for at least the next 20 years, and even if no changes are made, it would continue to pay out about 75% of currently scheduled benefits after that.
She made the crucial argument that it's wrong for the debate over Social Security's future to be focused on cutting benefits, rather than shoring up the program's structure by raising or even eliminating the cap on the payroll tax. (In 2014, the payroll tax will be levied on wage income up to a maximum of $117,000.)
"We need to have a different conversation," she said. Earlier in the week, she took aim at proposals to base the program's inflation adjustments on a new index called the chained consumer price index, which tends to rise slower than the basic CPI used today. "It's just a fancy way of saying cut benefits," she said.
For a primer on the chained CPI and its role as a stealth benefit cut, read our column here.
Warren joins Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) as a leading defender of Social Security in Congress. But her emergence in the vanguard of the movement to expand Social Security is significant because, given her following and her skill at making her arguments in a way that speaks directly to average Americans, it establishes a policy beachhead for the 2016 Democratic platform.
Talk of Warren as a presidential candidate is premature at best and, among her fans, probably just wishful thinking. Her role is better seen as a defender of principles during the nomination process and the campaign. She doesn't have to be a candidate for the nomination to play that role--she just has to be the same attention-getting, articulate spokesperson for progressive politics that she has been since she emerged as a national figure. (Take a look at this assortment of her "baddest clips" from The New Republic.) She should be welcomed to the cause.