Social Security What's Buzzing

How Trump is threatening the health and well-being of Social Security beneficiaries

Written by Nancy Altman

Though the coronavirus pandemic is most deadly to older adults and people with disabilities, Donald Trump is pushing states to open up, despite the danger to them. In addition to their physical security, he is also endangering their economic well-being.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided emergency one-time $1,200 payments to adults with incomes of $75,000 (phased out for those with higher incomes) and $500 for each of their dependent children under age 17. Underreported are the needless obstacles blocking the way of people receiving Social Security benefits, primarily older adults and people with disabilities, from receiving those emergency payments.

People receiving Social Security benefits should have been the first to get these payments, and should have gotten them automatically. After all, the federal government already pays monthly Social Security benefits to nearly 65 million older adults, people with disabilities, survivors, and their dependent children. The government already has bank or debit card information, the ages of the children, and, indeed, everything else needed to pay those benefits automatically and quickly.

But, instead, the Trump Administration at first required those of them who had not filed a tax return in 2019 or 2018 to submit information on a special web site before they could get a check. So, those who did not have enough income to file taxes – which is millions of them – were required to go online to collect their check. Only after tremendous pressure did it reverse course.

Then, the Trump administration put up a similar roadblock for the four million young people receiving Social Security payments as dependents. It had all the information needed to provide them with the $500. Instead, it gave their parents a day and a half to complete online information in order to receive the money. If they were not aware they needed to do so–and, of course, most were not–they will not see this money until 2021.  And they will only get their money in 2021, if they file in 2021.

Delaying emergency payments makes no sense. And, it is more than likely that millions will never file and so will never get the payments that Congress promised them.

The Trump administration also withheld the $1,200 payment from people who began receiving Social Security payments in 2020 and who had not filed tax returns for 2019 or 2018. Again, the government has all the information it needs to pay them these emergency monies, but it will not do so unless they file online. (At least, they were not given a deadline of less than 48 hours, a deadline that has now passed.)

Of course, most people receiving Social Security benefits are low-income, many living in poverty. Many also live in rural communities without internet access. And, many do not have computers or the ability to access online portals. Many have low literacy levels and are barely managing, often socially isolated and living alone through this pandemic.  Even if they have family or friends who could help them file, they are most in need of sheltering in place and staying apart from those who might be contagious – which, of course, is everyone.

The people to whom the Trump administration is refusing to provide full automatic payments are at major health risk. They desperately need the stimulus payments they are due.

Ironically, the stimulus payments are going automatically and swiftly to people in better financial and physical shape, who have filed tax returns.  Indeed, in their rush to get automatic payments to them, the administration has paid benefits to those who don’t qualify because their incomes have risen. The Trump administration has even paid benefits automatically to people who filed tax returns but have since died.  But, sending the full amount automatically to all Social Security beneficiaries? That is where the line was drawn.

Perhaps even more threatening, Donald Trump is attempting a sneak attack to undermine Social Security. Trump is obsessed with so-called payroll tax cuts, which is code for cuts to the dedicated Social Security contributions that fund Social Security. Even if he replaces the contributions with borrowed money, he will be playing a long game. Just like the proverbial child who murders his parents and pleads for leniency because he is an orphan, Trump and his allies in Congress are running up huge deficits, starving Social Security of dedicated revenue, so that they will likely claim, down the road, that Social Security must be cut to tame the deficit.

Trump has gone so far as to claim he will veto further relief legislation if it doesn’t include these damaging cuts to Social Security’s dedicated revenue. To be clear, cuts to payroll contributions are far less helpful to families in need during this pandemic than the $2,000 monthly payments Democrats are proposing.

People who are unemployed will see nothing from the cut to Social Security contributions. People with lower incomes who still have jobs would see only a few hundred dollars more a month. And all of us will be poorer down the road, if the sneaky attack on our Social Security earned benefits succeeds.

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