We Must Fight to Preserve Social Security for Millennials

If you’re a millennial, you may have been led to believe that you have a better chance of seeing a UFO or Bigfoot than receiving a Social Security check. In a recent survey, some 80 percent of millennials are concerned that they won’t be able to receive any Social Security benefits upon retirement.

With the steady drumbeat of dystopian disinformation flowing from Social Security’s opponents and many in the media, who could blame them? No wonder the young adults I talk to at town hall meetings across the country tell me the same thing: “Social Security will not be there for me when I need it.” Let me assure the U.S.’s young people that Social Security will be there for you in the future, if you fight for it now.

Don’t listen to so-called “entitlement reformers” who try to divide the generations by telling you it’s unfair that millennials “support” today’s retirees through Social Security payroll contributions. This ignores the fact that the program has always been a compact between the generations — and has provided Americans with basic income in retirement for more than 80 years. Social Security is the bedrock of the U.S.’s working and middle classes. We can’t allow conservative ideologues to erode it.

These “reformers” count on people forgetting that Social Security is much more than a retirement income program. It also provides disability, spousal and survivor’s benefits to Americans of all ages. The average worker with a spouse and two children would have to purchase more than $600,000 in life and disability insurance to replace the protections Social Security provides. In fact, some 1.2 million millennials already receive Social Security benefits.

Social Security is as much a millennials’ program as anyone else’s. Current trends indicate that millennials will rely on Social Security retirement benefits significantly more than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Increasing income inequality, wage stagnation, student loan debt, declining home ownership, the gig economy and the scarcity of employer-provided pensions have put young peoples’ retirement security at risk.

The National Institute on Retirement Security reports that two-thirds of millennials haven’t saved any money for retirement. At the same time, future seniors face rapidly escalating living costs. Basic expenses — from housing to health care to groceries — will become even pricier in decades to come. What’s more, millennials will live longer on average than today’s retirees, meaning they’ll have to spread out their financial resources over a greater number of years.

That’s why Social Security will be even more crucial in keeping today’s young people out of poverty in old age. According to a recent Urban Institute study, the average millennial will receive $1,000,000 in Social Security retirement benefits. That’s about twice the average amount that today’s retirees collect. But this will happen only if we are able to prevent “reformers” from cutting benefits, including raising the retirement age and adopting a more miserly formula for calculating yearly cost-of-living adjustments. Don’t let them fool you into believing that slashing benefits is the only way to keep the system solvent for the future — or that we should gamble with the Social Security trust fund by investing it on Wall Street.

In fact, there is another path forward, championed by Rep. John Larson (D-Connecticut) and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), among others in Congress. Both have introduced legislation that would put Social Security on a solid financial footing for the future while providing a modest but much-needed boost in benefits. Each bill would adjust the Social Security payroll wage cap (currently set at $132,900) so that the wealthy would begin paying their fair share into the program.

Representative Larson’s bill also includes a 1.2 percent increase in employee payroll contributions spread out over 24 years. The average worker would contribute an extra 50 cents per week toward future Social Security benefits — the equivalent of one Starbucks coffee drink every two months. As Larson points out, that’s a pretty good deal in exchange for the peace of mind of knowing Social Security will remain fully solvent through the end of the century, with more generous benefits and cost-of-living adjustments. If you’re an average income earner, you will surely need both to pay your bills in old age.

Millennials, here’s a chance to harness the power of your generation to exert influence on the future course of Social Security. Instead of accepting the false narrative that Social Security is doomed, join your parents and grandparents in protecting Social Security as if your future financial well-being depends on it — because it does.