A picture of Senator Bernard Sanders
Bernard S.
Independent VT

About Sen. Bernard
  • Executive Session

    by Senator Bernard Sanders

    Posted on 2014-12-15

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    SANDERS. Mr. President, it is no secret to anyone in America that the middle class of our country today is struggling; that while millions of American workers are now working longer hours for lower wages than they did in some cases 30 or 40 years ago--we are looking at a 40-year decline of the middle class--that almost all of the new income being generated today is going to the top 1 percent. Tragically, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on Earth.

    But the issue is not just for the middle class right now or for working families. The issue of the economic crisis we are in significantly impacts senior citizens and children, the most vulnerable people in this country. My hope always has been that as a great nation we will not turn our backs on the children of America. But year after year that is exactly what we do. We continue to have millions of children living in poverty. In fact, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. Almost 20 percent of our kids live in poverty. We have about one out of four children in America who gets their nutrition from the food stamp program.

    I worry very much about the future of this country if we cannot stand with the children of America; if we cannot make sure that working parents all over this country have high quality, affordable childcare. That is certainly not the case right now, despite the fact that virtually all psychologists recognize that the most important years of a human being's life are zero to four. But our childcare system is a disaster.

    It is not only the children we have turned our backs on. Increasingly we are turning our backs on senior citizens as well. It has distressed me for a number of years to be hearing many of my Republican friends and some Democrats talking about the need to cut Social Security--to cut Social Security. There are various schemes out there--some of them have to do with the so-called chained CPI--which would reformulate how we determine cost-of-living adjustments for seniors. This means, in fact, over a period of years significant reductions in what seniors and disabled veterans would get.

    We have worked, I have worked, in opposition to that concept for years. I think we have beaten it back, but I have no doubt that it will surface again. There are folks who want to cut Social Security, and, in my view, we have to do everything we can not only to defeat that proposal but we have to begin talking about how we expand Social Security benefits. Because today the kind of benefits that millions of seniors get are simply not adequate for them in terms of giving them the income they need to purchase the medicine they require, the food they need, the fuel to heat their homes in the wintertime, and other basic necessities.

    In terms of Social Security, let me be very clear. Despite what folks on TV may be saying, and some politicians may be saying, Social Security is not going broke. Let me repeat: Social Security is not going broke. Today Social Security has a surplus in the trust fund of $2.76 trillion--a surplus of $2.76 trillion--and can pay out benefits to every eligible American for the next 19 years, to the year 2033. So anyone who comes forward and says Social Security is [[Page S6835]] going broke, that is just factually not true. Social Security can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 19 years.

    We also hear the argument: Well, we have a large deficit, and Social Security is one of the causes of our deficit and our national debt. That is absolutely inaccurate. Social Security has not contributed one nickel to our deficit or our national debt, because Social Security, as every worker in America knows, is independently funded through payroll tax contributions from workers and employers--6.2 percent from each-- and it does not receive funding from the Federal Treasury.

    So, a, Social Security is not going broke; and, b, it is not contributing to the deficit. But I will say this about Social Security. In an incredibly volatile economy, the stock market goes up, the stock market goes down. Social Security, from its inception 79 years ago, through good economic times and bad economic times, has paid out every nickel owed to every eligible beneficiary with minimal administrative cost.

    Social Security is not an investment program. You can invest money on Wall Street, and sometimes you do well. You can invest money on Wall Street, and sometimes you lose your shirt. Social Security is a social insurance program. It has never failed 1 American in 79 years. That is a pretty good record.

    But even with Social Security being strong and solvent for the next 19 years, we have to recognize we do have a retirement crisis in America today. I fear very much that the appropriations bill just passed the other day, which will allow pensions for millions of workers to be cut, is only going to exacerbate that problem. Today in America only one in five workers has a traditional defined benefit that guarantees income in retirement.

    Amazingly enough, when we talk about anxiety among the American people, stress among the American people, and why people are angry, why they are fearful, over half of all Americans have less than $10,000 in savings. Stop and think about that. If you have less than $10,000 in savings, an automobile accident or needing a new car can wipe you out; an illness can wipe you out; a divorce can wipe you out. So we have millions and millions of Americans sitting there wondering how they are going to retire with dignity when they have $5,000, $8,000 or less in savings.

    Here is the importance of Social Security: Two-thirds of senior citizens today depend upon Social Security for more than half of their income; one-third of all seniors depend upon Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income.

    So when we talk about cutting Social Security, understand that a third of seniors depend upon Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income. This is not extra money; this is not fun money; this is life-and-death money. This is money that people need to buy medicine, food, and to keep their homes warm in the wintertime.

    I wish I could say otherwise, but the truth is that the percentage of seniors living in poverty in America is going up. In 2011, the official senior poverty rate was 8.7 percent. Last year the official senior poverty rate was 9.5 percent. That is a pretty significant increase in senior poverty.

    But if we look at the Census Bureau's more comprehensive measure of poverty, which takes a careful look at the out-of-pocket medical costs for seniors, the poverty rate for seniors is even worse. According to this supplemental poverty measure from the Census Bureau, the real senior poverty rate in America is actually 14.6 percent. What that means is that one out of seven seniors living in America last year could not afford to meet their most basic needs.

    The average Social Security benefit today is just $14,000 a year. As someone who will be the next ranking member of the Budget Committee, I intend to do everything I can not only to oppose vigorously any efforts to cut Social Security, I am going to do everything I can to expand Social Security benefits.

    In fact, the best way to expand Social Security is to ask the wealthiest people in our country to pay more into the system by scrapping the cap on income that is subject to the Social Security payroll tax. As the Presiding Officer knows, right now a billionaire pays the same amount into Social Security as someone who makes $117,000 a year. So if there is a multimillionaire here--somebody who is making $50 million--and somebody who is making $117,000, they both contribute the same amount into the Social Security trust fund. This is regressive. This is unfair. This is absurd. If we lifted this cap and applied the Social Security payroll tax to income above $250,000--not $117,000, but $250,000 a year, we could not only extend the solvency of Social Security for decades to come--which is what we want to do--but we could also provide the resources necessary to expand Social Security benefits. That is exactly what we should be doing, and that in fact is what the American people want us to do.

    In August 2014, a poll by Lake Research Partners asked likely voters if they support the idea of: . . . increasing Social Security benefits and paying for that increase by having wealthy Americans pay the same rate into Social Security as everybody else.

    Interestingly, the poll found that 90 percent of Democratic voters said they support the idea, and 75 percent strongly support that idea of lifting the cap; 73 percent of Independent voters support that idea, 55 percent strongly support it; 73 percent of Republican voters support that idea, 47 percent strongly support it.

    So there is for that idea enormously strong support across the political spectrum, Democrats, Independents, Republicans.

    Sadly, despite this overwhelming support for expanding Social Security, the CEOs at the Business Roundtable--the organization representing the largest corporations in America--came out with a plan last year which does exactly what the American people do not want to do. The American people want to expand Social Security and the Business Roundtable came out with a plan that would increase the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 70 and severely cut the COLA of senior citizens and disabled veterans.

    The Congress and the Senate here have got to make a very fundamental decision, and that is: Do we listen to the American people who are hurting today--the seniors who have worked their whole lives but who cannot get by in what in many cases are meager and inadequate Social Security benefits--do we listen to them? Do we stand up for and with the people who helped build this country--who worked the farms, who worked in our factories, who served us in our Armed Forces? Do we stand with them and expand Social Security, or do we listen to those on Wall Street and corporate America who want to cut Social Security benefits and in some cases want to privatize Social Security? This is a huge issue for tens of millions of Americans. I intend to do everything I can not only to resist cuts to Social Security but to do everything we can to expand Social Security benefits for those seniors and disabled vets who desperately need that expansion.

    Mr. President, I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Iowa.

    Bough Nomination Mr. GRASSLEY. Mr. President, Members of the Senate, in a few hours, maybe within this day or tomorrow, the Senate will be voting on several nominees to be district judges. I come to the floor to speak about one of these, Stephen Bough, of Missouri, for a seat on the District Court of the Western District of Missouri.

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