Add Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to the growing chorus of voices calling for the expansion of Social Security benefits.
The progressive favorite implored Democrats on the Senate floor Monday not to chain Social Security benefits to the rate of inflation or the rise in prices, which is known in shorthand as the Consumer Price Index.
Warren said it’s “simply not true” that these benefits must be chained to the CPI, as President Barack Obama has proposed, adding that “it’s just a fancy way of saying ‘cut benefits.’”
Instead, she suggested that Social Security benefits should be raised to levels that account for the impact of inflation on seniors, which grows quickly under the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ experimental CPI-E metric.
“The absolute last thing we should do in 2013 — at the very moment that Social Security has become the principal lifeline for millions of our seniors — is allow the program to begin to be dismantled inch by inch,” Warren said.
The conventional wisdom in Washington has for years held that Social Security is unsustainable in its current form, and lawmakers have proposed raising the full retirement age even further, from 67 to 70.
But recent studies have shown 49 percent of middle-class workers could end up “poor or near poor” when they retire, with a tattered safety net, and more Americans over age 50 are accumulating debt rather than saving money for retirement.
An estimated 75 percent of Americans who were nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 set aside for retirement.
“We need to find ways to tackle the financial squeeze that is crushing our families,” Warren said. “We need to help families start saving again. We need to make sure that more workers have access to better pensions.”
But in the meantime, Warren said, Social Security benefits should be expanded – and about three-quarters of Americans would like to see lawmakers consider expanding benefits.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) proposed a bill two years ago that would match Social Security benefits more closely with increasing medical care costs, but it never gained much traction until he reintroduced it in March.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) proposed another bill in May that would lift cap on payroll taxes paid into the Social Security trust fund and calculate cost-of-living adjustments using the CPI-E.
Groups such as MoveOn.org, the Campaign for America’s Future, Patriot Majority and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have been campaigning for expanded Social Security benefits since the re-introduction of Harkin’s legislation.
“Social Security is incredibly effective, it is incredibly popular, and the calls for strengthening it are growing louder every day,” Warren said.
Harkin’s bill would increase benefits by about $60 per month for most seniors, which falls well short of the $11,000 proposed by the New America Foundation and the 20 percent across-the-board hikes proposed by some activists.
But Harkin’s bill, which has also drawn the support of Begich, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has forced the issue into the political mainstream, and Warren’s backing turns the issue into a likely topic in the 2016 Democratic presidential race.
“This summer no one even talked about (expanding benefits), but now we’re really building momentum,” Kimberly Fountain, campaign director for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told Raw Story.
Fountain said Harkin and Begich’s bills would give a worker $452 more per year by age 75 and $807 more by age 85, and Harkin bill would include an additional increase of almost $800 a year to Social Security recipients.
She added that “scrapping the cap” on payroll taxes would pay for the increases and ensure Social Security’s solvency beyond its current $2.7 trillion surplus.
Although Warren has said she doesn’t intend to run, she has been mentioned as a potential challenger to frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and she’s very popular among liberal activists.
Even if she chooses not to make a White House bid, support turns Social Security expansion into an important campaign issue.
“Our first goal was to get this into the political dialogue, and I feel like we accomplished that,” Fountain said. “Our next goal is to give progressives a great issue to run on in 2014 and pave the way to helping our grandparents and veterans.”
Watch this video of Warren’s speech posted online by ProgressiveTVvideo: