Jewish tradition recognizes the vulnerability and abandonment that may come with old age. "Cast me not away in time of old age, forsake me not when my strength is spent," laments the Psalmist in Psalm 70. The Bible responds to the fear of old age by urging people to respect and care for their elders. As it says in the Book of Leviticus: "You shall rise up before the gray haired and defer to the one who is elder" (Leviticus 19:32). Again and again, we are commanded to take care of those who are most vulnerable in our society, typified by the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
Social Security embodies these biblical principles of intergenerational responsibility and support. For over sixty years, it has been the main avenue through which the United States has assured a reasonable income for its retired workers and their families, as well as for those who have lost family income due to the death or disability of a worker. Social Security, arguably the nation's most successful antipoverty program, is a social insurance program and a crucial safety net for some of our most vulnerable populations. Poverty rates among the elderly have fallen from an estimated 50% in 1935 to around 11% today. Over two-thirds of elderly Social Security beneficiaries receive more than half their income from Social Security, and for 16%, Social Security benefits are their sole income. Over 30% of Social Security beneficiaries receive disability or survivor benefits.
Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund, who are charged with making seventy-five year predictions based on conservative assumptions, project that by 2014, benefits will exceed revenues and by 2034, the Social Security Trust Fund that has been built up will be depleted. At that point, they predict, Social Security revenues will only cover 75% of promised benefits. Others insist that the assumptions of the trustees are unrealistically modest and that when current rates of productivity and population growth are taken into account, the fund is, in fact, not in crisis at all. Moreover, they argue, if we invest in education, health, and job training programs and work toward full employment, as the UAHC has advocated repeatedly in the past, we can maintain a healthy, productive workforce, foster future economic growth, and extend the capacity of Social Security to fully fund benefits beyond the dates now forecast.
Many proposals for reforming Social Security suggest replacing the current system and its defined benefits with individual accounts that would be invested in the stock market. Supporters of individual privatized accounts argue that establishing such accounts would increase returns on Social Security dollars and give individuals more control over their retirement money. Others disagree. They argue that any move toward privatization would create larger risks for individuals and involve substantial administrative costs. Furthermore, they argue that individual accounts would undermine the progressive element of the Social Security system. Under the system as it currently exists, Social Security replaces proportionately larger shares of past earnings for low-income workers than for those in higher brackets. A system relying on individual accounts is unlikely to be similarly progressive.
A number of possible modifications to the Social Security system have been proposed. We believe that any plan for changing Social Security must be consistent with certain fundamental principles.
THEREFORE , the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to advocate for a Social Security system that incorporates the following principles:
- Social Security must remain a social insurance program. Its primary role should continue to be providing for the elderly, widows, widowers, orphans, and people with disabilities. This role must be fulfilled by the federal government;
- Social Security must continue to provide disability and survivor insurance as well as retirement benefits;
- Social Security benefits should be portable and guaranteed, should provide a decent income, and should keep up with inflation. Workers and their families must have a program they know they can count on in old age or in case of disability or the death of a working family member;
- Private accounts should not replace Social Security's current retirement benefits, in whole or in part;
- Beneficiaries who earned higher wages during their work life should continue to receive benefits related to their earnings history, but the progressive nature of the program--replacing a larger share of low-income workers' past earnings as a protection against poverty--should be maintained;
- The impact of any Social Security change should not fall disproportionately on women, minorities, or low-income people. Basic benefit protections for workers who have lower lifetime earnings and more time away from the workforce because of caregiving for children, parents, or spouses should be preserved and strengthened; and
- Any change in the funding of Social Security must not divert funds from other vital social programs.