Cliff Carlton was the 10th of 11 children and one of three still living at home when his father, a coal miner, died unexpectedly at 67.
Only his dad’s Social Security benefits, along with vegetables from the family’s small farm in southwestern Virginia, kept the household afloat during the lean years that followed.
That battle for survival made Carlton a lifelong champion of Social Security and a tireless opponent of the Republicans in Congress who keep trying to kill this lifeline for the middle class.
“It’s not a gift. It’s money that we’re due,” explained Carlton, vice president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 8-UR2 and president of the Virginia Alliance for Retired Americans.
“We put money into it. We deserve it back,” continued Carlton, 70, a retired tire manufacturing worker and longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who’s attended rallies and lobbied Congress on behalf of Social Security for 30 years.
“It's not something we’re going to give up without an extraordinary fight."
Republicans long hoped to privatize Social Security, preferring to gamble Americans’ futures on the stock market rather than force the wealthy to pay their fair share of the taxes needed to sustain the program. Fortunately, congressional Democrats, union members and other Americans torpedoed these schemes.
But now there’s a new threat. To secure enough votes to become speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy toadied to extremist Republicans whose demands for radical budget cuts once again put Social Security and Medicare at risk.
Pro-corporate Republicans openly plot to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, moves that would force millions of Americans to work longer and delay their retirements. Some Republicans even want to gut the current funding formula, slashing payments to Americans with other income, regardless of how much they pay into the program.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare warns that this kind of con, called means-testing, would end Social Security as Americans know it and take benefits even from those with “very modest incomes.”
“If you lose something, you don’t ever get it back,” observed Carlton, who fears that Republican toying with Social Security will break seniors already living on the margins amid skyrocketing medical costs and mounting bills stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition to providing a buffer against unexpected health crises, Social Security is the only resource many retirees have when they outlive the nest eggs they accumulated during their working years.
“My grandmother is 102 years old. She retired at the age of 65 the year I was born, so I’ve never known her except in a retired state. She still lives on her own,” said Mike Budd, 37, a Marine Corps veteran and member of USW Local 12775, who credits Social Security with enabling his grandma, a former bank teller, to maintain her independence and high quality of life for decades.
“In fact, that’s the reason I’m very passionate about keeping this program around,” said Budd, who works as a substation electrician at Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO).
Democratic President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate will continue to protect Social Security—and Medicare—from the Republicans who narrowly regained control of the House in November. Still, the Republicans vow to stage a showdown over America’s debt and allow the nation to careen toward default in a reckless gambit to commandeer the spending cuts they want.
Ironically, many of the same Republicans bent on eviscerating Social Security have huge personal fortunes on top of congressional pensions and enjoy a level of financial security out of reach of most Americans.
“It’s certainly easy to tell people to make do with less when they have more,” noted Budd, chair of Local 12775’s Veterans of Steel Committee, who deployed to Iraq three times from 2004 to 2009 as an aircraft mechanic with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 14 (MALS-14).
“There were no millionaires deployed with me,” noted Budd, only “a lot of working-class people” who loved their country and believed in the American dream that Republicans now threaten.
Some Republicans attempt to soft-pedal their shenanigans by saying they won’t cut benefits for current recipients, only future retirees who would have “time to adjust” to the changes, likely by working longer.
That angers Budd, who’s been paying Social Security taxes since he was a 16-year-old with a summer job at an equipment rental company and expects the long-promised return on his ongoing investment.
He’s already laying the financial groundwork for his golden years, and those plans hinge on a robust Social Security program that will not only let him retire at a decent age but support him as well as it has his grandma should he also live to 102.
Instead of cutting essential programs, TJ Stephens said, he’d like to see Republicans agree to fairly tax uber-rich Americans who use dodgy loopholes to pay little or nothing now. And he’d like to see more wealthy tax cheats and deadbeats run to ground.
Stephens, a member of USW Local 9231 and an electrician at the Cleveland-Cliffs complex in New Carlisle, Ind., regards Social Security as America’s contract with working people—one as inviolable as the one he signed when he joined the Air Force at 19 and went off to serve as a satellite communications technician at Langley Air Force Base.
“Inhumane is the best word I can think of,” Stephens, 37, said of Republican plans to move the goalposts on those already paying into Social Security and force younger Americans to “work ourselves into the grave.”
Ultimately, Carlson predicted, public anger will stop the Republicans in their tracks. He’s planning to ratchet up his activism and get more retirees to join him.
“It makes a difference,” he said of Social Security. “It's not something we’re going to give up without an extraordinary fight.”