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Strengthening Social Security

Legislation would keep program running for next 75 years without cutting benefits

By Congresswoman Chellie Pingree

Maine families rely on Social Security to help make ends meet during retirement. But as Baby Boomers prepare to retire, concerns have grown on how the program will serve a surge of recipients. With all the rhetoric going around, you might be wondering if it will be there when you need it.

Let me assure you, Social Security will be there for you and your family. The program is strong, not in debt, and able to pay full benefits for the next 27 years even if we do nothing to change the program. That's not to say we don't need to address a serious problem. If we do nothing, we're looking at a 22 percent reduction in benefits in 2037. That's simply unacceptable.

Thankfully, there is a way to keep Social Security running for the next 75 years without decreasing benefits. We can remove the cap that limits Social Security contributions to an earner's first $106,800 in annual income. Doing so would create the revenue we need to support retiring Baby Boomers. We would also be able to increase benefits for those who contribute more, and offer cost-of-living increases that better meet seniors' needs.

I'm cosponsoring legislation to remove the income cap because it will both extend the viability of the program and give seniors a better quality of life. Other proposals on the table include cutting benefits or raising the retirement age. While these proposals might balance the books, they do nothing to help people live a good retirement.

Mainers pride themselves on being hard workers. Don't they deserve to retire at an age where they are healthy enough to enjoy it? The retirement age will soon be 67, but some lawmakers want it to be 70. Many workers, especially those in occupations that are hard on the body, won't make it that long. Already, some choose to take heavy penalties by retiring early. Others try to find work in new careers, which is nearly impossible at that age. But most Mainers I hear from just try to push through the pain.

That's not right. It's tragic that someone who paid into the system for so long cannot collect full benefits because they are physically unable to keep their job. Raising the retirement age would put more people into this terrible situation.

Decreasing benefits is not a healthy approach either. We all know that Social Security checks don't go far in today's world, and they are the only source of income for many retirees. So many Mainers leave little for themselves after providing for their families. We should not be making it even harder for these seniors to pay for essentials.

By removing the income cap for Social Security, we can avoid forcing seniors to work longer and stretch their dollars even thinner. Those who contribute more would also receive more, but this isn't the only way the legislation improves benefits.

We need a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that better reflects the rising costs for seniors. For the last two years, seniors have had to make do without a COLA increase. Why? Because the Consumer Price Index to which the COLA is tied has been hit hard by the economy. However, essential costs for seniors—such as for prescription drugs or heating oil—have continued to go up.

This legislation would link the COLA to a new index based on these essentials. And in years where no COLA increase is triggered, a $250 check would automatically be sent to recipients. We were able to give seniors this payment in 2009. Congress did not pass a similar effort in 2010, even though many of my colleagues and I supported it. This is not the kind of thing that we should leave to partisan debate.

For 75 years, Social Security has worked to reverse once alarming trends of poverty among seniors. This legislation is what we need to continue that important work for another 75. Let's take this step to ensure a proper quality of life for older Americans who so deserve it.

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