Monday, January 23, 2012

Social Security and presidential politics

In many ways, 2012 will be defined by November's presidential election. Primaries, caucuses, conventions, and debates will fill the airwaves. Signs and bumper stickers and t-shirts will fill our neighborhoods. And with presidential politics in the air, we will begin to hear more about domestic issues big and small--the economy, immigration, national security, etc. In rural America, one of those issues will likely be Social Security.

Almost 77 years after Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, over 50 million Americans--1 out of every 7--receive benefits each month, and more than 90 percent of all workers are in jobs covered by Social Security. It has becomes, according to the Social Security Administration's history, "an essential facet of modern life." This is especially true in rural America.

Using data from the Social Security Administration, Daily Yonder co-editor Bill Bishop and Dr. Roberto Gallardo (a research associate with the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University) highlighted the important role that Social Security plays in rural America in their October 2011 article, "Rural Counties More Dependent on Social Security":
In rural counties, 9.3 percent of total personal income came from Social Security payments in 2009, according to an analysis of government data. That is almost twice the rate found in urban counties, where 5 percent of total income came from monthly Social Security payments.

In counties with small cities (under 50,000 population), Social Security is also a larger part of the local economy. In these so-called 'micropolitan' counties, Social Security accounted for 8.2 percent of total personal income.

Nationally, Social Security makes up 5.5 percent of total personal income.
Using the same data, the National Academy of Social Insurance created a visual representation of the facts: a map illustrating the percentage of total income coming from Social Security by county in 2009. And in a November 2011 article, Bishop and Gallardo looked at the state-by-state impact of potential cuts. For example,
In West Virginia, 24 percent of the total population receives a monthly check from Social Security. In Washington, D.C.--where decisions are made about this program--only 12 percent of the population are Social Security recipients.
On its web site, the League of Rural Voters offers further "sobering" statistics:
  • Over 90 percent of counties in America with high senior populations are rural.
  • 13 percent of rural seniors live in poverty, compared with 9 percent of metropolitan seniors.
  • 15 percent of rural women over aged 60 are poor compared to 11 percent of men.
  • 80 percent of rural seniors over aged 85 with incomes of less than $10,000 are women.
Social Security is not just important to rural individuals, but also to the rural counties where inhabitants could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in income if Social Security were to undergo significant cuts or changes.

Congressional budget crises aside, Social Security seems to be an issue that is only debated with any real intensity during an election year. Even now, in the thick of the Republican primary season, there does not seem to be significant discussion on the subject. The four candidates still vying for the Republican Party nomination (New Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum) make no substantial mention of Social Security in the informational materials on their web sites. And although his views on Social Secuirty are available on the White House web site, President Obama's campaign web site doesn't mention Social Security.

By contrast, Social Security is one of only ten "issues" listed on the League of Rural Voters web site. Still, the subject does come up, and the candidates' opinions are across the board.

According to CBS News, Ron Paul thinks Social Security is "technically unconstitutional, a mess and a failure" and as president, he would begin a transition out of the program into privatized options. The Washington Post reports that Newt Gingrich would keep the current system but also offer a private market option that would be backed up by the U.S. government. Mitt Romney has advocated for overhauling the program by raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for wealthy individuals, but has stopped short of advocating for privatization. Rick Santorum's plan is perhaps the most drastic, calling for "immediate" cuts to Social Security, according to Huffington Post. President Obama is opposed to privatization and advocates instead for "protecting & strengthening" Social Security.

In this economy, many voters may be more concerned with finding a job now than with having security in the future. Nevertheless, as The Washington Times points out, seniors (both rural and urban) are a key voting block and are looking for "commitment" to the program from the candidates. And as the race narrows and heats up this fall, both candidates will speak more and more about the big issues facing the country, including the health of Social Security. And they can bet that rural Americans--who stand to gain or lose so much from potential changes--will be listening.

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