Hands off social security!

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Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.

Republican leaders in Congress would have us believe that most Americans support cutting Social Security and Medicare payments as a way to cut the federal budget deficit. But don't you believe it.

As the AFL-CIO and other labor sources have discovered, that's at best a figment of the Republican imagination. Or, as is most likely, it's a bald-faced political lie.

The proof came in a poll marking the 75th anniversary of Social Security this year. It was conducted by a prominent research organization, Greenberg Quilan Rosner, and commissioned by the nation's leading public employee unions, the Service Employees International and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, joined by MoveOn.org and the Campaign for America's Future.

The poll was in response to Republican House leader John Boehner's call for reducing the federal budget deficit by raising the Social Security retirement age to 70, while continuing President Bush's massive tax breaks for multi-billion-dollar corporations and wealthy individuals.

Boehner, that is, wants to lower the Republicans' rich friends' taxes at the expense of Americans who must rely on Social Security payments, averaging less than $14,000 a year, to meet their basic living expenses.

It would make much more sense, of course, to reduce the deficit by increasing taxes on the wealthy at least to the level they were before Bush's tax cuts, rather than do it by raising the retirement age and making other financial cutbacks that hurt low and middle income Americans.

So, what did the poll show?

Most Democrats and independents responding wanted to end the Bush tax cuts that, if not repealed, will increase the deficit by an estimated $3.1 trillion over the next decade and reduce government revenue by more than $650 billion. That obviously would greatly curtail Social Security and other government programs for poor and middle class Americans.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that most of the Republicans polled did not want to repeal the tax cuts and thus help government provide more services to those who need them, often badly need them.

Nevertheless, nearly 70 percent of the probable voters polled, whatever their political party, opposed cutting Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit.
What’s more, two-thirds of the Republicans also opposed raising the retirement age, despite their general dislike of the Social Security system. Raising the retirement age from 67 to 70 obviously would greatly curtail Social Security and other government programs designed to help poor and middle class Americans. But that apparently didn't disturb many of the Republicans polled. Most of them did not want to repeal the tax cuts under any circumstance.

The AFL-CIO concluded - and quite accurately, I think - that "those conservative politicians who want to use concern about deficits as an opening to go after Social Security or Medicare risk a backlash" from voters.

The poll made clear that relatively few people are buying the Republican claims that Social Security and Medicare outlays are a major cause of the continuing federal budget deficit. Too many people have too much sense to believe that.

But what did sensible voters see as the main causes of the deficit?

Nearly half of those polled blamed the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About a third blamed the bailouts of big banks and the auto industry.

Nearly a third blamed lobbyists and special interests for getting unnecessary spending put into the budget.

Almost as many placed the major blame on President Obama's economic recovery or stimulus plan.

About one-fourth blamed the Bush tax cuts.  A relative few blamed the economic recession that reduced tax revenue and required costly government support for the unemployed. A relatively few others blamed the deficit on the cost of Medicare prescription drug benefits.

What it boils down to is this, as the AFL-CIO's James Parks said in a bit of public advice to GOP Congressman Boehner:  "The public doesn't like your plan to cut their Social Security so your rich friends can get another tax break."

Anyone doubting the popularity and importance of Social Security need only consider a recent AARP survey that showed  "exceedingly high" support for the program.

" Clearly," said AARP researcher Colette Thayer, " most Americans rely on Social Security and expect it to be a source of income in their retirement. In fact, it is the most commonly cited source of retirement income."

    Whatever their ages, whether over 30 or under, the poll - just as others like taken on the program's anniversary dates five, 15 and 25 years ago - shows that Social Security is one of the government's most important programs in that it provides essential retirement income to millions of Americans who would otherwise have little or no income.

The Campaign for America's Future and MoveOn.org, will be jointly campaigning for candidates in the coming midterm elections who'll pledge to block cuts in Social Security and Medicare and otherwise back the organizations' liberal agendas. The unions that helped them sponsor the poll will also be waging major campaigns, as will other AFL-CIO affiliates.

They're backing the kind of political candidates we should all back – and as strongly as we can. Our social security depends on it.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.