In a speech at a liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, the Ohio Democrat laid down a marker for what he says should be a cornerstone of progressive policy.
Many Republicans no longer openly suggest partially privatizing the retirement program as they did during President George W. Bush's administration and in recent presidential primaries. But Republicans in Congress including Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman have called for paring back benefits from Americans who jointly get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments and unemployment benefits.
Saying that more than 100,000 recipients "double dip," Republicans earlier this year proposed new restrictions as a way to get money to pay for extended federal unemployment benefits.
President Barack Obama has discussed cutting double benefits as well. According to a Government Accountability Office estimate, at least 117,000 Americans got a total of $575 million in unemployment benefits in 2010 after losing their jobs, while also getting $281 million in disability payments because they were considered unable to work.
Defenders of the dual payments note that SSDI allows recipients to work in some low-wage jobs and still get disability benefits – and when they lose those jobs, their small level of unemployment benefits tides them over until they can go back to work. It is a small cushion that other unemployed workers get, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The unemployment-extension idea failed to win congressional approval. But more recently, Republicans have proposed ending dual SSDI and unemployment payments and using the savings to help pay for repairing the nation's highways and bridges.
Other Republicans say SSDI is rife with abuse.
Brown and a number of allies reject that claim. Less than 1 percent of the beneficiaries in SSDI and unemployment programs receive benefits from both, according to the Congressional Research Service, and the money they get represents less than half a percent of the outlays of either program.
Brown says that Republicans and "enemies" of Social Security are trying to separate the disability and retirement programs, characterizing one as good and the other as bad, as a way to "divide and conquer" while building support to harm both programs.
"They praise 'good' Social Security," Brown said. "Good Social Security," he said, is "what members of Congress's mothers get."
"They attack 'bad' Social Security – that's the disability trust fund, which they say is rife with fraud and abuse and undermines 'good' Social Security. We need to recognize these attacks for what they are: backdoor attempts to dismantle and privatize Social Security by discrediting disability insurance."
Conservatives, Brown said, "don't want to save Social Security. They want to end Social Security. It means we need to do more than defend the program and play defense. We need to play offense and expand the program."
Nine million Americans get SSDI benefits that average $1,130 a month. But nearly two-thirds of those who apply are denied benefits, said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.
The program faces financial pressure, with benefits payments projected to exceed SSDI tax revenue and reserves in 2016.
But Brown and others say the financial issues can be solved with administrative fixes and with a minor change to the taxes that fund both the disability and the retirement portions of Social Security.
Congress has allowed such administrative changes 11 times before.
Most workers pay 6.2 percent of their incomes for Social Security – 5.3 percent for the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund and 0.9 percent to the SSDI trust fund. Raising the SSDI tax rate by 0.2 percent would make SSDI solvent for the next 75 years, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance.
When incomes exceed $117,000, they are no longer taxed for Social Security. But Brown and others say that lifting this "earnings cap" could end fears that the combined old-age and disability program will see reserves run out in 2033.
Brown wants to expand Social Security by tying annual cost-of-living benefit increases more closely to expenses that retirees face.
And he and other Democrats want to add a new benefit: paid family and medical leave for workers who need to care for loved ones. One Democratic proposal would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave, with benefits up to 66 percent of typical wages.
This could be funded by a fee of 0.2 percent on employers' and workers' wages, a sum that Brown said is far from punitive. The United States is one of only a handful of industrialized nations that do not have such a policy, according to the Center for American Progress.
"The debate over Social Security should not be about how much we can cut from the program in order to balance the federal budget," Brown said. "The debate over Social Security should not be about raising the retirement age or limiting benefits. The debate over Social Security should be about retirement security."
Link to original article from The Cleveland Plain Dealer