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Letter to the Editor: Strengthening Social Security for Future Generations

An op-ed from U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine.

For 77 years, Social Security has benefited millions of seniors and provided a secure retirement future for our parents, our grandparents, and our most vulnerable. This week, we celebrate the anniversary of one of the most successful programs to ever be enacted, recommit ourselves to strengthening Social Security for future generations, and renew the promise of generations before us that no American should slip into poverty after a life-time of hard-work. 

When Social Security was signed into law, more than 50 percent of all American seniors lived in poverty. Today, that number is 10 percent in Virginia. It’s not a coincidence. Since 1935, Social Security has been an invaluable part of our social fabric and provided a stable future for American workers.

Social Security is not a handout or welfare, nor is it a ponzi scheme. It is program that workers pay into for decades, with earned benefits that allow one in six residents to afford housing, groceries, and health care after they leave the workforce. Without it, nearly 40 percent of Virginia’s seniors could fall into poverty. We cannot allow that to happen to the parents who raised us, the neighbors who taught us, and generations before who have helped us along the way.

But additionally, Social Security provides steady revenue to an economy that cannot sacrifice a cent in these tough times. All told, the Social Security benefits earned by Virginians amount to four percent of the Commonwealth's GDP. We cannot afford to allow this program to be dismantled or altered in a way that risks the well being of seniors or our recovering economy.

Some will continue to stir up fears of insolvency to push privatization plans on this program but those claims remain exaggerated or flat out false. Here are the facts – Social Security does not contribute one dime to the federal deficit and is solvent for at least the next two decades. It is true that in order to strengthen the program for future generations we need to pursue strategies that will bolster the Social Security, but drastic privatization plans are not the right approach. Instead, just as Congress has done for generations, tweaks should be made to Social Security that will keep faith with the program that serves more than 1.2 million Virginians.

During his last term in the U.S. Senate, my opponent George Allen supported one of the plans to shift Social Security funds into private accounts. In 2005, George Allen argued that seniors should be allowed to invest a portion of the Social Security funds in homes and mortgages and the stock market. Fortunately for our seniors and future retirees, he was unsuccessful.  Three years later, the housing bubble popped and the stock market bottomed out – proving just how disastrous privatization would have been. Had Republicans been successful, privatization of Social Security resources could have cost Virginia retirees millions in hard earned savings. In fact, if George Allen had gotten his way, those who invested their Social Security dollars in the housing market would have lost an average of 25 percent of their investments.

I reject those privatization plans. They boil down to gambling with the retirement savings of hard working Americans and jeopardize the promise that we’ve made to generations. While we must continue to find common ground on solutions like altering the payroll tax cap to preserve Social Security's long-term integrity, we cannot take a knee jerk approach and push the panic button on a program that’s worked.

This remains a key difference between my opponent and I in this election. While he has proven willing to put seniors’ retirement funds in a volatile stock market, I will never hesitate to speak out against any plans for privatization. To strengthen these programs for the next 77 years, we must have leaders who are willing to come together to pursue adjustments, but never to wager with retirement savings. As a senator, I will be a willing and vocal part of that effort. Together, we can continue to ensure a dignified retirement for all Americans.

Tim Kaine served as the 70th governor of Virginia and is a candidate for U.S. Senate.

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