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Third Rail

February 12, 2023

We have a new mix in the United States Congress where Republicans now control the House of Representatives and the Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

The House side of congress just went through a bruising leadership selection process. After compromise, Keven McCarthy was selected. I have no dog in the fight as far as preference in the controlling party. I do have a keen interest in the work to be done and a growing concern over some things that seem to be on the house agenda. The compromises required for Mr. McCarthy to win the gavel in the house are likely to have consequences. There is one above all others that concerns me and should concern a very large percentage of my forest neighbors. The Third Rail. The social support of those of retirement age.

Cutting costs is a concern of everyone, particularly those who must make decisions and take action to make those cuts. In the not-so-distant past, social security and medicare were considered a ‘third rail’. Touch it at extreme risk. It is important to seniors and seniors vote.

Lately, I see more and more a willingness to not only ‘touch’ that rail, but to approach with knives out. Mr. McCarthy vowed to protect these programs but this leaves a lot unsaid because there are those in his caucus openly contemplating cutting/slashing these programs. Some failures of decorum aside during the recent State of the Union regarding the issue of Social Security and Medicare, this should not be a red/blue issue. There are old Republicans AND old Democrats. Social security is relied on by all sides. The program IS in trouble with dire predictions to occur around 2035 or 2038. This is too close for comfort and it is not a new problem. It has been kicked down the road by congresses of all mix for as long as I can remember.

Some solutions that I have seen involve raising the eligibility age. That would protect the current recipients and certainly grip those on the brink of retirement with serious concern. Some propose limiting benefits for ‘higher earners’. Who can be sure what constitutes higher earnings.

One solution that I like is to remove (or raise) the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes. This would be an effective tax on higher earners. I have NEVER in my working career made enough money to raise me over this cap. Wealthy people no longer owe this tax on income in excess of $160,200. This has always meant that support of this system falls overwhelmingly on lower-income people.

George W. Bush pushed a privatized social security. Give people the money and let them invest it themselves. If you have a portfolio, and if you have been watching it the last year or so, you may be very happy this was throttled in the “crib”.

The social safety net is often called ‘entitlement’. Many rightly point out that this is not fair. These benefits, effectively national retirement insurance, have been paid for by most of us all of our working years. Would anyone consider their paycheck an entitlement. Or an insurance check for a house fire? Right now, the social security and medicare programs might be slow, but accelerating, house fires. Solutions must be found. Social Security and Medicare have long been in the crosshairs in some political circles.

As things started to pop up in the news, I decided to send an email (my very first) to Rep. Glenn Thompson expressing concern as a retiree. I received the following:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bell:
Thank you for contacting my office regarding the issues surrounding Medicare and Social Security. I appreciate learning your thoughts on this issue and value the opportunity to respond.

Medicare and Social Security have provided retirees, disabled workers, and families across the Nation health and financial security for more than 80 years. These programs serve as a support for all Americans, while playing a vital role in local economies.

Unfortunately, both Medicare and Social Security continue to face financial burdens, which threaten many individuals’ ability to fully benefit from the promises that have been made to them. It is important to understand that the Social Security Trust Fund becomes insolvent in 2038 and the Medicare Hospital Fund by 2024. These programs will be taking in fewer contributions than the benefits they are required to pay out. This will result in levels of care and benefits being reduced significantly, which is unacceptable.

Please know that I remain committed to strengthening and protecting these programs, ensuring all Americans, especially those in Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, continue to receive the resources they earned throughout their lifetimes.

I’ll give Mr. Thompson credit for the quick response. His answer does leave the problem open to ‘slash and burn’ approaches hinted at (or explicitly stated) by some of his colleagues. I’m not criticizing Mr. Thompson. He (or someone on his staff) responded quickly. Their words signal the best of intentions. It is the means that need to be clearly explained.

There are cases to be made for different approaches. Something has to give or everything is going to break. Who knows how long before the break. The hazy date currently indicated is some time mid-2030s. My age and life span may shield me from the most severe consequences of any solution (or failure to arrive at one), but there are generations on the brink of their golden years or nurturing hopes for that horizon.

As the data below show, there are a lot of us here in the forest counting on benefits for which we paid over many years. There are a lot coming along just behind us also counting on those benefits. Whatever the approach, no one can deny that a solution needs to be found. Soon. Problems these days seem always to arrive a lot sooner than models predict. There are those now eyeing the third rail with violence. Seniors vote. For that reason, they are usually heard. We need to make some noise. A quick look at the information below should scream that it matters.

(Census Data)

Warren County
Population 37,618 – Drop of about 10,000 since 1970
65-74 years 13.2%
75 to 84 years 7.0%
85 years and over 2.8%

Forest County
estimated 2023 population is 6,751 with a growth rate of -1.08% in the past year according to
the most recent United States census data. …The 2010 population was 7,716 and has seen a
growth of -12.51% since that time.

65 to 74 years 13.9%
75 to 84 years 6.1%
85 years and over 3.4%

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