Committee Statement by Sen. Bernie Sanders on Social Security

Sen. Sanders made the following statement at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee entitled "The Wobbly Stool: Retirement (In)security in America." 

Thank you very much Mr. Chairman and thank you for stepping up to the plate and getting involved in an issue that is of concern to tens and tens of millions of Americans but an issue that we do not discuss enough. So I am glad that we are going to jump into some hearings on this issue.

 I don't want to tell you, but all over this country, there is a feeling of deep anxiety. Something is happening in our country and people are not quite sure what it is. What they do know is that in this great country of ours, the middle class today is disappearing. People know that. They may not be PhDs in economics but they know that. They are worried their kids are going to have a lower standard of living than they are despite all the increases in productivity we’ve seen in recent years. They understand our manufacturing base, which supplied so many good jobs for working people has been eviscerated in recent years. They understand that median family income went down during the eight years of the Bush administration by over $2,000. Millions of people left the middle class and went into poverty. They understand that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. They also understand something else very profoundly and that is why the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing.

Virtually all of the new income created in recent years has gone to the people on top. So that today we have the top 1 percent earning 23.5 percent of all the income in America.  The top 1 percent earning more income than the bottom 50 percent.  The top 1 percent owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent and that disparity is growing wider and is the widest in the industrialized world.

And in the midst of all of that, as you’ve just indicated, there are now attacks often from billionaire type operators, Wall Street people, who are going after the one area where people have had security for the last 75 years. The truth of the matter is that Social Security has been the most successful federal program in our history. During all economic times, whether we were in prosperity, or in severe recession, Social Security has paid out every nickel owed to every eligible American. Now, we take that for granted. But during the last Wall Street collapse, when people were losing their 401Ks, people were losing their pensions. Not one American did not receive 100 cents on the dollar of what he or she was owed in Social Security benefits. That is a pretty good record.

And, while all of us must be concerned about the $13.4 trillion national debt that we have and the very large federal deficit, it is imperative that we be honest about the causes of that national debt. And I get a little bit tired of people saying “well we’ve got to privatize Social Security. We have got to cut back on Social Security benefits. We have to raise the retirement age because we have a $13 trillion national debt.” Well you know what? Social Security has not added one penny to the national debt, quite the contrary.

Want to know why we have a national debt? We are fighting two wars which we forgot to fund. We’ve given hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent.  No one worried about that. Medicare part B, unfunded. Bail out of Wall Street, unfunded. Social security has a $2.6 trillion surplus, hasn't added a nickel to our national debt.

If there are people who for ideological reasons, people don’t like government, people who want workers to invest in Wall Street for their retirement programs, that's fine. That's a good ideological position, not mine. But let’s get the facts right. And the facts are that Social Security is not responsible in any way for our deficit or our national debt. Let's also understand that according to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security can pay out every nickel owed to every eligible American for the next 29 years. Now we’ve got a lot of problems in this country. We have 25 percent of our kids on food stamps. We have an infrastructure which is collapsing. We’ve got two wars. We’ve got a national debt. We’re worried about health care. We’ve got a lot of problems out there. But you know what? Social Security happens not to be one of the major ones. Is it an issue we should address so that our grandchildren and great grandchildren will have the benefits they’re entitled to? Yes. But for 29 years, every beneficiary in this country will get 100 cents on the dollar they are owed. That's pretty good. So let’s address it. I have some ideas, you have some ideas. But let us not go forward in privatization and let's not go forward in raising the retirement age to 70.

As you’ve just indicated, a lot of these billionaire guys on Wall Street who think raising the retirement age to 70, they’re not out laying bricks, they’re not out plowing snow in Vermont till three o’clock in the morning, they’re not out lifting patients in a nursing home. They’re not out doing the physical labor. To ask American workers today to be working to the age 68, 69 or 70 is reprehensible. It is not what this country is about. It is wrong. Not only is it wrong for those people working to 70 before they get their benefits. You know what else it does? It tells the young people who want to get into the labor market you can't get in because we’ve got old people doing the work. Meanwhile unemployment for young people is very, very high.

So, the reason that there is so much opposition to Social Security for some of these billionaire guys is because Social Security has worked. It has done exactly what it was supposed to do. It has worked for the elderly, for the disabled, for widows and orphans. And this Senator is not going to allow some Wall Street people, who have helped destroy this economy, move towards privatization or raise the retirement age. Thank you Mr. Chairman.