Progressive Evangelical Attacks AARP, Social Security

When DC’s Religion Industrial Complex sings its hosannas about evangelicals moving toward progressive social positions I always try to be hopeful, even as I turn a gimlet eye to what’s really happening beneath the headlines.

In recent years the Red Letter Christian who gets the most ink, and the most praise from Jim Wallis and other leftish evangelical confreres, has been Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. I don’t know Sider personally, and most of what I have been able to read about his spiritual and ethical evolution is positive. Which is why I was kind of stunned to read his Huffington Post declaration on so-called inter-generational injustice. I thought, “Wow, this guy buys right into the deficit scold mentality without really doing his homework: another leader who should know better is taking his cues straight from the GOP playbook.” 

In the piece, Sider announces that he is tearing up his AARP card because the AARP isn’t willing to face the deficit music and join in calls to cut Social Security and Medicare. He employs familiar Greedy Geezer rhetoric: how deplorable that seniors are treated so lavishly when our young have it so rough, etc. 

I’ve said before in these pages that I’ve had it with the deficit scolds; with the billionaire-financed “austerity for you but not for me” line. Thus, to see a leading “progressive” Christian figure go after what we used to call the social wage was especially distressing to me. Because I am not an expert on the technical stuff, I asked respected economist Dean Baker to comment on, among other things, Sider’s portrayal of our most-prized social insurance programs as Devouring Beasts that must be cut down to size in order for this great republic of ours to sail on in untroubled seas:

This inter-generational issue is incredible nonsense. And the idea that anyone would support cutting these programs out of a desire to help the young is close to obscene. Among other things, the greatest cuts will almost certainly hit the young. So Ron Sider has told America’s youth that he wants to make them less secure in retirement as a matter of inter-generational equity?

Then Baker turned to the basic math on social insurance costs in relation to GDP:

As far as the specifics, Social Security spending is projected to increase by about 0.5 percentage point of GDP between now and 2025, from 5.0 percent this year to 5.5 percent of GDP in 2025. Aging would cause Medicare spending to increase at roughly the same rate, albeit from a smaller base (3.7 percent of GDP currently).

The increase projected for Medicare is now about 0.4 percentage points of GDP from 3.7 percent to 4.1 percent. (That’s for 2023—we don’t have the updated projections for 2025. CBO has lowered the growth projections due to sharp decline in the projected growth of health care costs.)

Medicaid costs are expected to grow more rapidly, but this is primarily due to increased coverage of low-income non-elderly people, something we should imagine Sider would endorse. 

His conclusion:

The long and short is that there will not be that large an increase in the cost of caring for American seniors due to aging over the next decade. And in fact we probably saw a larger increase between 2000 and 2013 then we will see between now and 2025. Total spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be around 13 percent of GDP. The projected tax take for these programs is 19.1 percent of GDP. 

And some of Baker’s other pointed observations: 

1. Social Security is fully paid for by its designated tax through 2033. If we cut Social Security then do we think we are being moral by taxing people for Social Security and using that money to pay for war or for interest on government bonds? I’m not religious, but that doesn’t fit my idea of morality.

2. Social Security would be in much better shape had it not been for the upward redistribution of wage income over the last three decades. This accounts for almost half of its projected 75-year shortfall. This upward redistribution is what makes what is really an issue of intra-generational inequality look like an issue of inter-generational inequality.

3. We pay way too much for health care not because our seniors get better care, but because our doctors, drug companies, medical supply companies, and other providers get twice as much money as their counterparts in other countries. To claim that seniors are somehow benefiting because their specialists are getting paid $400,000 or $500,000 a year is just flat out dishonest. If we paid for our care what everyone else pays, our budget would look fine.

4. The amount we collect in tax revenue is not fixed in stone. We have taxed more in the past, and we can do it again. Apparently Mr. Sider thinks it would be immoral to tax the richest people in the country more. If that’s the definition of morality, then we need a lot more immorality.

5. Working Americans are willing to tax themselves more for their Social Security benefits rather than see the system undercut and eventually destroyed. It is great that Mr. Sider has decided that he won’t let people do what they want, but again, I would not equate this with any definition of morality I ever came across.

That’s Dean Baker. For myself, I wish Ron Sider had considered the obvious downside of means testing social insurance benefits. There’s a very good historical reason why Social Security and Medicare were created as universal programs and not as programs that benefit only lower-income people: their creators knew full well what so easily happens to programs that can be demonized as “welfare.”

I also found it mighty odd that Sider would come out for means testing but never mention the most obvious and equitable way to make Social Security solvent forever, which is to lift the payroll tax cap that represents such a big wet kiss to upper-income people while placing a major burden on the shoulders of lower-income working people—and especially on the shoulders of the young, whom Sider claims to care so much about. 

But hey, if Ron Sider wants to trash the AARP based on the anti-social bushwa served up by the conservative noise machine, that’s his business. If he wants to be a hero to America’s young, however, he should consider taking his name off the loathsome Manhattan Declaration. But that’s a story for another day.

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.