Let’s Not Undo New Deal or Great Society Programs

(October 2012)

There are many loud voices calling for drastic changes to New Deal and Great Society programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These vital programs have made it possible for most older Americans to live out their lives in relative economic security, free from the worry and fear that poverty can bring.

Before Social Security, a New Deal program, more than 75% of older Americans lived in poverty. Even now, 18% of older Americans are considered poor meaning that the elimination of elder poverty is still a work in progress. However, it remains exceedingly difficult to create political consensus around expanding programs or initiatives that seek to solve the problem. At the same time, we believe that the Presidential election shows that the American people are not ready to retreat from 77 years of progress.

The answer lies not in making changes to Social Security such as mean testing. A change like this could turn Social Security into a poverty program, eroding future support among middle and upper class voters and ensuring its eventual demise. One need look no further than to what has happened to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in its 40-year history.

Neither a New Deal or Great Society program, SSI was signed into law by President Nixon on Oct. 30, 1972. Unlike Social Security, which is funded through individual and employer contributions, SSI is funded through general revenue. Those who count on it for their survival, including some two million older adults, receive a monthly income that is far below the federal poverty level, because there has been no political will to raise the federal benefit rate or otherwise modernize a poverty program like SSI.

There will be concerted efforts to reduce SSI and/or Social Security benefits for the sake of curing the nation’s budget deficit. Advocates in the aging field need to be vigilant in protecting them, whether advocating for raising the FICA tax for higher income workers to make up the long term Social Security shortfall or helping NSCLC push for modernizing SSI.

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