Op-Ed: Coronavirus stimulus bill must include expanded Social Security payments

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on October 4, 2017.

Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Congress is allocating billions of dollars to respond to coronavirus and a growing economic crisis — and those dollars need to be directed right into Americans’ pockets.

Right now, Americans are facing a public health crisis and an economic crisis. Coronavirus carries special risks for older Americans and people with underlying health conditions, who are following the advice of public health experts by staying home and staying away from other people in order to reduce their exposure to coronavirus. These Americans are scared about their heightened risk for severe illness — and scared about the future as they watch their retirement savings disappear as the pandemic shocks the U.S. economy.

That is why we are pushing to include in Congress’ next stimulus package a $200 increase in the monthly benefit for all Social Security, Veterans, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries through the end of 2021. This will put about $4,000 in the pockets of seniors and people with disabilities who have earned this benefit by contributing to Social Security with every paycheck. A simple benefit increase like this will improve the lives of millions of Americans and help our economy stabilize and recover. 

Providing Americans with one-time cash payments, as members of both parties have suggested, will certainly provide many families with a much-needed cushion to cover the costs of basic necessities like food and rent. But we should not neglect channels like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance that have long been a critical source of income security for workers, seniors and people with disabilities. 

Furthermore, Senate Republicans’ proposal only provides half-benefits for individuals who need these checks most, like seniors on a fixed income or those who pay very little or no tax. Expanding Social Security and other benefits by $200 a month through 2021 will be a more stable and reliable source of support for these seniors and the economy as public health officials work to contain this virus.

When the economy is in a downturn, getting it moving back in the right direction requires Americans to start spending money and researchers have found that permanent Social Security benefits increases have a “large, immediate, and significant” positive impact on spending. In fact, there is a nearly 1:1 ratio between an increase in Social Security benefits and an increase in consumer spending. That provides an enormous boost to the economy — and it starts with the very first month of increased benefits.

Nearly 64 million Americans received a Social Security check in 2019, the majority of whom were retired. Social Security makes up a majority of income for most seniors and older individuals with severe disabilities.

But millions of Americans relying on Social Security are still struggling to make ends meet. Nearly 10% of seniors are living in poverty, and the rate is higher for seniors of color and women. More than half of all low-income Americans receiving SSI benefits rely on the program as their only source of income

Increasing Social Security benefits is the quickest way to get money out the door during an economic crisis. Congress has done this before: beneficiaries of Social Security and SSI received a one-time $250 benefit after the 2008 economic crisis as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Our proposal ensures that increased benefits don’t end up kicking Social Security and SSI recipients off other critical assistance programs during this crisis and the proposal assures that those who are more well-off pay back some of this expansion when they pay their taxes. It’s a solution that helps families, boosts our economy, and starts at the grassroots. 

We have a chance to stimulate our economy by taking care of Americans who need it the most. We need to match the scope of this crisis with bold solutions that invest in our country’s future. 

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a Democrat from Massachusetts. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is a Democrat from Oregon. 

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