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Dr. Skidmore goes to Washington

His Social Security expertise in demand

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare may not have UMKC Political Science Professor Max Skidmore on speed dial, but they came calling recently with an invitation:

Want to join us for a visit to the White House?

Skidmore is not an official member of the group, but his reputation as a reliable, longtime student of Social Security and Medicare is widely known. Of course, he said “Yes.”

The first day in Washington was spent in orientation meetings. The next day, members of the group, 105 strong, had a full day of back-to-back sessions with legislators and aides from their home states.

Skidmore described his discussion with Missouri Senator Roy Blunt as “thoughtful and reasonable.” Blunt expressed his view that Social Security may need revision, but he is opposed to privatization.

In a give-and-take session lasting from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m, the final day was spent with White House personnel, including Liz Fowler, Special Assistant to the President for Health; Jacob Lew, Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and other top-level administrators. 

Skidmore is not one to be shy about discussing his strong views on Medicare and, particularly, Social Security. First and foremost, he believes talk of a Social Security “crisis” is overblown.

He believes the first step to averting a problem could be to shore up the fund with additional money, by raising the current “ceiling” of income subject to the Social Security tax (FICA). Currently, income above $110,100 per year is not subject to the tax. Next, Skidmore cautioned against putting too much stock in the actuarial projections that show a looming deficit, calling them the products of an imprecise science. Finally, he pointed out that reducing Social Security payouts has no effect on bringing down the overall budget deficit.

“Social security has gone from being the third rail in American politics to being fair game for political scare tactics and blaming it wrongly for federal woes,” Skidmore said. “It angers me to hear it called an unjustified entitlement program. What I say is, ‘You worked for it. It’s yours. You’re entitled to it.’ ”

Some latter-day changes to Social Security regulations, he believes, are somewhat petty. For instance, until 1981, the child of a beneficiary, eligible through disability or retirement, could receive benefits for college or trade school to age 21. That is now age 18. 

Also, the Minimum Benefit provision provided a floor – eventually reaching $122 per month – for anyone with low average earnings in Social Security-covered employment. In 1981, Congress crafted a bill eliminating the Minimum Benefit for all current and future beneficiaries, signed into law by President Reagan. Public outcry led Congress later to enact legislation that restored the original Minimum Benefit to persons who were eligible before January 1, 1982. This essentially did away with the $122-a-month floor for all future beneficiaries who turned 62, became disabled, or were eligible for survivor benefits. 

“Historically, arguments against Social Security have suggested that workers should pay all the premiums, with no contributions from employers. They could invest for themselves in such instruments as 401(k)s or stocks and bonds,” Skidmore said. “Alternative programs put the burden on the worker – but with a volatile market and institutions that sometimes have proven unreliable, the worker is vulnerable. Anyone who’s paid attention has noticed stock market manipulations, the 401(k)s of Enron employees wiped out and Bernie Madoff taking the rest. Not exactly an attractive alternative.”  

Skidmore said the concept of “shared sacrifice” for strengthening the system is lacking, because the sacrifice in most proposals “is shared by the elderly, the disabled and the poor. There is something missing from this equation. Every economic class should participate in shoring up our safety net, no exceptions, no loopholes, no outs.  Someone needs to look out for the average American.” 

In Skidmore’s estimation, President Obama intends to preserve Social Security and Medicare, accepting the argument that projections of insolvency are not written in stone. Different projection tools yield different results and are revised up and down as new figures are available. And with Boomers aging out of the picture, the dire predictions will surely be rewritten.

“Social Security was never intended to make you rich,” Skidmore concluded, “but it will keep you from being abjectly poor.”

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 “Social Security was never intended to make you rich, but it will keep you from being abjectly poor.”

Max Skidmore
Professor of Political Science