Guest Column

The Coming Fight to Protect Social Security

If politicians don’t take action in the next 10 years, Social Security payments could be cut by 20%

By Mike Batista

Hundreds of thousands of Montanans count on the Social Security payments that they’ve earned through a lifetime of hard work. Currently, 244,937 Montanans receive Social Security. Those payments inject more than $4 billion into the state’s economy every year.

Social Security is a guaranteed source of income. For most older Montanans, Social Security is their only reliable inflation-protected income. It helps them keep up with rising prices. Moreover, they can’t outlive the payments.

So it’s no surprise that an  overwhelming majority of the public supports the program  – and that support crosses party lines. An AARP survey in 2020 found that more than 90 percent of all Democrats, Republicans and Independents support Social Security. But Social Security is facing a crucial funding shortfall. If politicians don’t take action in the next 10 years, Social Security payments could be cut by 20%. That’s an average of more than $4,000 per recipient per year. 

For many retirees, Social Security is their largest source of income. The average retired Social Security payment in Montana is $1,595 a month – reflecting the 8.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment that took effect in January of 2023. 

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Social Security. Before its creation in 1935, it’s estimated that roughly half of seniors lived in poverty. Social Security addressed this situation by recognizing that certain changes in our life – retirement, illness, injury or the death of a loved one – can cause our income to plunge through no fault of our own. 

From the start, Social Security has always been linked to work. You earn Social Security by contributing to the program over a lifetime of work. Most of the U.S. workforce is now covered by the program, which is largely financed by the payroll taxes that workers pay. This makes Social Security fundamentally different from other programs that are supported by general tax revenues and pay benefits only to certain individuals. 

Over time, Social Security expanded its safeguards for what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “the hazards and vicissitudes of life.” Reflecting this vital social insurance mission, categories were added for spouses of workers, survivors, workers with disabilities, and family members.

Another crucial trait of Social Security is that your payments are guaranteed. They don’t rise and fall with the stock market or depend on your employers’ decisions. Social Security payments are calculated based on your highest 35 years of earnings — and your age when you start collecting Social Security. 

In the 1970s, Congress added a cost-of-living adjustment – making inflation protection a standard feature of Social Security.  

For all of these reasons, Social Security stands out as a great success. Of course, our society has changed since Social Security’s birth in the Great Depression. Yet by some measures, the program has never been more important.

Increased longevity keeps adding to the cost of retirement. Prices for basic necessities continue to rise. Many Americans have limited savings and employer-paid pensions are increasingly scarce. More seniors are single and lack family support. 

Given these realities, we must keep Social Security strong. Social Security is income you have earned and can depend on. Moreover, we need to ensure that our young people will receive the Social Security that they’re earning now through their hard work – just as their parents and grandparents did.  

AARP is urging Washington to find a solution to protect and save Social Security, so all Montanans get the money they’ve earned.

Social Security has never missed a payment. And AARP will never stop fighting to protect this indispensable program – so it stays strong for you, your family and future generations of Americans.

Mike Batista is responsible for directing the advocacy efforts for AARP Montana.