We all have heard the casualty reports from today's economy. Almost 14 million Americans are now out of work, and another 25 million Americans are unemployed or under-employed. These reports are grim, but even more so for our elderly, one of the hardest hit groups by what enablers are calling the "new normal."
Elderly Americans, most of whom have worked nearly all of their adult lives and invested Social Security payroll taxes from every single paycheck, face a new threat: Some are talking about hiking the retirement age for receiving full Social Security benefits from 67 to 69.
However, the sad state of today's economy means that most older unemployed workers cannot find a job. In 2009, one year after the economic meltdown began, nearly three out of every four new retirees -- 2 million out of 2.7 million Americans -- claimed retirement benefits early, resulting in a permanent benefit reduction of as much as 25 percent.
Many of these two million Americans retired early because they had no choice. They may have been laid off and are unlikely to find new jobs. They may have health and physical challenges. And many face age discrimination. Older workers have little likelihood of getting back into the work force. They should not be penalized for their lack of options.
Raising the retirement age from 67 to 69 represents a whopping 13 percent cut in Social Security benefits for those affected. And this comes after we've already bumped the retirement age from 65 to 67 for those born after 1960. Not only would this new cut create increased hardships for unemployed seniors; it's a broken promise.
What is the promise we made when we set up Social Security? It is a social contract, a promise we make to each other that when you grow old or are hurt or if a parent or spouse dies suddenly, you're not alone. We, as a society, will help out. This isn't a government give-away or welfare. Remember, we all pay into Social Security every time we receive a paycheck. Social Security is a uniquely and profoundly American program and it represents a profoundly patriotic value -- we're all in this together.
For 76 years, Social Security has been helping keep elderly Americans out of poverty. It helps pay the utility bills and puts food on the table. And it's not making anyone rich -- the average retiree receives less than $14,000 a year, which is even less than full-time at minimum wage. Still, for many, Social Security represents that line of demarcation between "making it" and abject poverty. Between staying in your own home and moving in with the kids, if you're lucky. Social Security did away with the "poor farm."
It is important to remember the principles upon which this promise to America was founded. Social Security belongs to the workers and their families who worked hard, put in payroll taxes and earned its benefits. Social Security did not cause the federal budget crunch and the deficit should not be used as an excuse to cut benefits.
Unfortunately, from time to time, some people suggest we forget the promise made when we first created Social Security as part of FDR's New Deal. Now, with the economy struggling and many elderly workers suffering, it's a good time for all of us to remember the promise. Let us say with pride that when it comes to Social Security, we made a promise to Americans. And we kept it.
Zuckett is executive director of WV Citizen Action Group and WV Citizen Action Education Fund.