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Ocasio-Cortez Backs Social Security Expansion, Says the Wealthy Need to Chip In

SSI payments cap at $142,800 in wages, allowing the rich to pay only a small portion of their wages to the program.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a news conference to discuss legislation that would strengthen Social Security benefits, on Capitol Hill on October 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

As Democrats reintroduced a bill to expand Social Security on Tuesday, cosponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) shared her personal experience with the program, emphasizing that wealthy people should contribute more.

Social Security 2100, introduced by Social Security Subcommittee Chair Rep. John Larson (D-Connecticut), would expand social security benefits and extend the depletion date by three years to 2038, after which the program will have to begin cutting benefits by 20 percent. It would give a small bump to current beneficiaries and increase the minimum benefit to 125 percent of the poverty line.

New increases would be paid for with taxes on the wealthy, applying payroll taxes to wages above $400,000. This would affect the wealthiest 0.4 percent of earners, according to the lawmakers.

Ocasio-Cortez, one of the nearly 200 cosponsors of the bill, emphasized the importance of the program and shared its impact on her own life at the bill’s unveiling. “It’s so important for us to know that Social Security is there for all of us: when we lose a parent, a spouse, or, god forbid, having an unexpected diagnosis or an accident,” she said, stressing that the program can benefit people of all ages, not just seniors.

“When I was a kid, my dad passed away due to an unexpected cancer diagnosis,” Ocasio-Cortez continued. “I was the daughter of a domestic worker, and social security checks helped my family through. It’s why my brother and I were able to go to college; it’s why I felt confident while I was at college that my mom would be able to have something to eat.”

“To have that social safety net isn’t just good for us individually for peace of mind, it helps us feel like we are part of a society that respects our elders and values our vulnerable,” the lawmaker said.

Social Security is vital to preventing poverty, keeping more people out of poverty than any other program in the U.S. According to an analysis by the Census Bureau, Social Security kept 26.5 million people out of poverty in 2020. Still, policy experts say that the program, established in 1935, is in need of dire improvement and investments, as budget cuts have created delays, insufficient payouts and general service issues that have compounded over the past decades.

In 2020, the maximum federal Social Security benefit was $783 a month, or only about $9,400 a year — less than three-quarters of the federal poverty line, which is already extremely low by modern standards.

The bill is “common-sense legislation that expands and strengthens Social Security and includes particularly important provisions for unmarried caregivers, poorly compensated workers, and older people in their 80s and 90s,” Shawn Fremstad, senior policy fellow for the Center for Economic & Policy Research, told Truthout. The bill provides caregiver credits so that retired caregivers aren’t punished for exiting the workforce to take care of dependents.

Democrats plan to pay for the expansion by applying payroll taxes to incomes above $400,000, which Fremstad says “would be sufficient to fund the expansions in the bill and strengthen Social Security for the long term.”

Currently, wages above $142,800 aren’t subject to payroll taxes, which fund the program. Policy experts say that this is an egregious oversight of the bill, as people making far less than the wealthiest Americans bear more of the burden to pay into Social Security than the rich do. Because contributions are capped at that rate, millionaires can stop paying into the program as early as February each year, while the middle- and lower-classes have to pay into it every paycheck.

“Every year, when I did my taxes, I saw how much I contributed to Social Security as a waitress — thousands of dollars a year. What we want to do is make Social Security better, to expand it, to cover people like my mom, who left her job to care for my dad while he was ill,” said Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday. “And we want to do that by asking the wealthy to pay into Social Security the same way that I did when I was a waitress. It’s pretty simple.”

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