The Truth About Social Security and the Left: Why Bernie Sanders Said NO to Ending Elderly Poverty in America


Photo credit: Michael Vadon. License: Creative Commons.

Social Security is our country’s most effective anti-poverty program, and yet, almost 5 million seniors on social security live in poverty in the richest country on the planet. And when Bernie Sanders had an opportunity to end that disgrace by working with President Obama, he said no.

In 2013, after President Obama was re-elected but the House remained in Republican hands, he embarked on a mission to reform the nation’s budget. Obama leveraged the recommendations of a bipartisan commission that recommended a series of reforms, including closing tax loopholes raising an additional $1.1 trillion, curtailing the growth in defense spending, and minor adjustments to social security benefits. While President Obama used the report from the budget commission as framework, when it came to Social Security, what came to be known as the “Grand Bargain”, he modified it to protect seniors. Most notably, Obama rejected a proposal from the commission to increase the full social security retirement age to 69.

President Obama’s proposal, even according virulent critics, consisted of the following key components:

  1. Modifying the inflation measure to account for the fact that when the price for something increases, people often substitute other items. For example, if the price of bananas goes up, you might buy more apples. This is commonly known as the chained consumer price index, or chained-CPI.

  2. Increasing the benefits for oldest seniors by $800 a year, twice: once at age 76 and again at age 96).

  3. Setting a minimum benefit of at least 125% of the federal poverty level.

There would be no change - except for those whom the minimum benefit would increase payments - to the base formula of how one’s benefit is calculated. Benefits for the richest seniors would be curtailed to pay for creating the floor benefit. These proposals came combined with increasing the cap on social security payroll taxes as well as other revenue measures.

No sooner than it had been proposed, the far left became so obsessed with #1 that they entirely ignored - willfully, I suspect - reforms #2 and 3. We pointed out at the time that in addition, the law requires that when the social security trust fund is exhausted - currently projected for 2034 - benefits be automatically be cut by 25% across the board as incoming tax revenue, if no changes are made, would only be able to pay for three-quarters of the benefits once the trust fund is depleted.

At the time, Bernie Sanders was chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and he immediately promised to fight President Obama tooth and nail to stop these reforms. He, other leftist legislators, and interest groups on the left quickly coalesced to smear President Obama, accuse him of attacking the social safety net and benefits for seniors just three years after Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act, which reduced medical expenses for seniors on Medicare in real terms by eliminating copays for preventive care and closing the drug benefit gap that existed under Medicare Part D.

Although leaders like Nancy Pelosi stood by President Obama, Republicans smelled blood with a fractured progressive coalition immediately following Obama’s re-election and an opportunity to preserve tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporations. Republicans allied with Bernie Sanders and his leftist coalition to tank President Obama’s proposal, and it was scuttled.

Here is what that means in real terms, today: Bernie Sanders had an opportunity to work with President Obama to completely end the indignity of elderly poverty in America, and he stood in the way. Because Bernie Sanders and his band of privileged leftists considered it more important to defeat a proposal from a Democratic president they saw as imperfect, they decided to preserve poverty among seniors to feel good about their purist stand, rather than compromise to help those who are actually poor and rely on social security.

Put it another way, the scourge of elderly poverty would have been history today but for the intransigence of the Sanders Left.

That is the truth about Bernie’s record on Social Security.