By Elizabeth Marum
This summer I traveled all over Montana, met and talked with thousands of people with the Faces of Social Security exhibit, and offered information on what Social Security means to our state. The exhibit displays portraits of Montanans on Social Security who tell why it matters to them. We invite people to sign a banner that states, “Social Security Works for Montana; let’s keep it that way!” which hangs as a backdrop.
The stories and photos make us think about the real-world impact of Social Security right here at home. Social Security is a cornerstone of economic security for retirees, disabled people and survivors whose parents are either deceased or unable to work due to disability. Each of those groups is important. And, the average benefits received are a modest $1,039/month.
Equally important are the Main Street businesses, local landlords and services which are benefited by the $200 Million that is delivered into Montana’s economic base from the payments 1 in 5 Montanans receive in their monthly Social Security check. Since its inception in 1935, Social Security has NEVER missed a payment. That’s 77 years of reliability and financial predictability for recipients and the businesses they frequent.
Social Security is important to me, because I was raised on it when my father died in a mining accident that left my mother a widow with three small children ages 3 months to four years old. Nobody decides to have a tragic accident or sudden death, but if it happens and they have paid into the program, Social Security is a life-saving public insurance.
So what exactly are politicians suggesting when they say we should “fix” Social Security? When I hear that, I hear code words for dismantling Social Security and privatizing its $2.6 Trillion Trust Fund on Wall Street. The average American has never prospered as much as Wall Street has from their hard-earned investment. We’re betting against the bank, and we should know better.
Social Security, as with any 77 year old program, does need occasional maintenance just like a federal highway that receives a lot of traffic, and this can easily be done. If we taxed all wages fairly, Social Security would be solvent for the indefinite future. Currently, payroll is not taxed on earnings above $110,100, and only a small percentage of Montanans earn that much. Social Security Trustees are responsible to project earnings and expenses for 75 years, and removing the cap on payroll taxes would assure solvency in the near- and long-term.
There are also improvements that should be made. Take the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for senior citizens. Our seniors don’t say, “I deserve more.” They say, “I wish the COLA kept up with my bills.” This can be done by tying the COLA to the CPI-E, the Consumer Price Index for the cost of goods typically purchased by elderly people, and would allow more equitable COLA increase for retirees.
Our congressional representatives will be making decisions about the future of Social Security. It’s our responsibility to elect senators and congressmen who vote for us mindful of the 198,230 Montanans on Social Security now, and the generations of workers throughout our state that will pay and have paid into the Trust Fund for decades. It’s both a Trust Fund and a public trust that we, as citizens, have with our government. Our congressional representatives need to respect this, and it’s our duty ask those we elect to office if they will commit to this sacred trust.
Social Security is too important to our state and its people to gamble away. Let’s make sure it remains the strong cornerstone of economic security for future generations — at least another 77 years.
Elizabeth Marum, an organizer with Montana Organizing Project and Community Organizations in Action, has brought the Faces of Social Security tour to 19 towns and cities with 23 events.