Bernie Sanders on Public Assistance

Bernie Sanders is a staunch advocate for the social benefits of public assistance programs. These aren’t the Reagan-era “welfare queen” giveaways as Republicans have branded them—they’re essential tools the federal government can wield to achieve a more just, equitable society.

Social Security

We must strengthen and expand the Social Security system.

Before President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the Social Security system, over half of seniors lived in poverty. Today, because of Social Security, that number is less than 10 percent. Bernie believes reinforcing this monumental anti-poverty program is an imperative.

No one likes poverty. But what is Social Security exactly?

Social Security is a multi-tiered federal program that includes several social welfare and social insurance programs. It can provide you, your spouse, and other eligible members of your family with benefits when you retire, if you become disabled, or (not to be a bummer) when you die. In other words, it’s not just for “old people.” In fact, Social Security is also called OASDI for Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance.

Yeah, yeah. But can I see a video that explains it with graphics and nice music?

Sure. Here ya’ go:

Social Security: Just the Facts

Why is Social Security important?

Roosevelt conceived Social Security — or as he often called it, “social insurance” — to address the permanent problem of economic security for the elderly. It created a “work-related, contributory system in which workers would provide for their own future economic security through taxes paid while employed.” The original vision was for Social Security to form a “three-legged stool” in combination with company pensions and personal savings. In recent years, however, the other two legs of the stool have become less reliable.

Sounds like there’s a lot at stake.

Quite a bit. Social Security is currently projected to remain solvent only until 2033. If we do nothing, it’s only going to pay about 75 percent of promised benefits. Keep in mind that pensions, savings, homes, and other forms of equity are shrinking; therefore, not only maintaining but strengthening Social Security is more important than ever.

So, what does Bernie have to say about it?

In announcing the filing of his Social Security Expansion Act he said,

“Social Security is the most successful government program in our nation’s history. Through good times and bad, Social Security has paid out every benefit owed to every eligible American… The most effective way to strengthen Social Security for the future is to eliminate the cap on the payroll tax on all income above $250,000 so millionaires and billionaires pay the same share as everyone else.”

That sounds good, but I want to hear more about this bill.

To start, the Social Security Expansion Act would make the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share. Currently, the amount of income subject to the payroll tax is capped at $118,500. That means someone making millions of dollars a year pays the same amount in payroll taxes as some making $118,500 a year.

The new legislation would subject all income over $250,000 to the payroll tax, which would impact only the top 1.5 percent of all wage earners. By that new payroll tax, Social Security benefits would increase by about $65 a month for most recipients. It would also increase cost-of-living adjustments and provide a minimum Social Security benefit to significantly reduce the senior poverty rate.

Alright, I’m intrigued. How can I learn even more?

You can read through the entire Social Security Expansion Act here.

I’ve heard about something called a chained CPI for Social Security. What is a chained CPI?

A chained Consumer Price Index, or CPI, is a formula which would change the way that cost-of-living adjustments are calculated for Social Security benefits. This change would, in turn, alter the amount Social Security recipients receive each month. The chained CPI is just one of the ways in which Social Security benefits can be indexed to inflation. Currently, cost-of-living adjustments are calculated using the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, or CPI-W.

If instituted, how would a chained CPI formula impact social security benefits?

A chained CPI would reduce Social Security benefits. A chained CPI assumes that recipients of Social Security benefits will substitute their spending habits based on the rise and fall of prices of goods and services. However, the cost of healthcare rises at a faster rate than other goods and services, meaning that a chained CPI would disproportionately affect senior citizens who spend a larger portion of their income on healthcare. This would lead to lower monthly benefits for recipients as there are not often alternatives to healthcare spending.

I’ve heard that both Democrats and Republicans have proposed a chained CPI. Where does Bernie stand?

It’s true that some Democrats and Republicans have supported a chained CPI in the past. President Barack Obama considered chained CPI adjustments, but decided not to include the formula in his administration’s budget in 2014. Republican Reps. Jim Bridenstine [R-OK] and Doug Lamborn [R-CO], meanwhile, sponsored the Provide for the Common Defense Act of 2013, which sought to institute a chained CPI in order to offset sequestration cuts made to the military.

Bernie has always been against a chained CPI because it would equate to a cut in Social Security. In a statement on the floor of the Senate in 2012, Bernie said:

“…some of the folks here want to pass something called a chained CPI, which, if it were imposed –and I will do everything I can to see that it does not get imposed — would mean that between the ages of 65 and 75, a senior would lose about $560 a year, and then when they turn 85 and they’re trying to get by off of $13,000 or $14,000 a year, they would lose about a thousand bucks a year. That’s what some of our colleagues want to do. Virtually all the Republicans want to do it. Some Democrats want to do it as well. As chairman of the defending Social Security caucus, I’m going to do everything that I can to prevent that.”

The full video of his speech can be viewed here:

Pension Benefits

In December 2014, Congress passed a law that allowed drastic cuts to multi-employer pension benefits programs (MBPs). Before this law was passed, it was illegal to make cuts to a pension plan that was already agreed to and earned by employees. Bernie believes that we need to repeal this law to reinstate pensions for senior citizens who have dedicated their entire life to working for a decent retirement. Through their contributions and hard work, they were promised financial security during retirement, which is now being threatened due to this law. Bernie plans to reinstate all pension programs that were cut by closing tax loopholes for wealthy corporations.

What is a multi-employer benefits program?

A multi-employer benefits program (MBP) is a financial agreement between two or more companies in a given trade that provides benefits to all of their employees. These benefits programs are usually initiated by workers’ unions and settled through collective bargaining.

There are two types of plans: welfare MBPs and pension MBPs. Welfare MBPs provide any of the following: group life insurance, disability insurance, medical insurance, legal insurance, unemployment insurance, or paid vacation. Pension MBPs provide retirement income benefits. For both of these types of plans, all workers in the union must pay into the MBP to be able to access the benefits that it provides when the time comes; and the size of the benefits is directly proportional to the number of years of service of the employee.

Sounds fair. What exactly is the problem?

Well, until recently, it was illegal to make changes to a pension MBP that was already agreed upon, and that a union’s employees had already started paying into. However, in December 2014, President Obama signed the Omnibus Spending Law (H.R.83), which allowed for companies to make drastic cuts to all existing pension MBPs. While in 2012, there were over 2000 pension MBPs with a net worth of over $600 billion, it is now estimated that the scope of these pension plans will be cut by 60 percent.

Though retirees over 80 are completely protected from these cuts, retirees from ages 75 to 79 are only partially protected, and those under 75 are generally not protected at all. This means that most workers who have been paying into pension MPBs for their whole lives will be losing out on their earned pensions. Retired women, in particular, are grievously affected by this law.

Wow, that is really unfair! Why is this happening?

Right now, the United States is facing a shortfall of over $1 trillion with regards to paying out pension benefits. The cuts implemented by the Omnibus Spending Law are a desperate attempt to deal with this shortfall while still providing pension benefits to the most vulnerable – retirees over 80.

Where did all this pension money go?

There are a few explanations. First, the growth rate of senior citizens is rising rapidly in the U.S. – a result of the aging Baby Boomer population. This is causing problems across the U.S. economy, putting particular stress on the state of pension MBPs.

However, many economists agree that the biggest reason for the shortfall is that the Great Recession of 2008 led to massive losses in investment portfolios, including for MBPs. This caused state governments to shift their budgets in a way that stabilized business interests at the cost of workers’ retirement security. Furthermore, instead of being distributed fairly to all employees, most of the money collected through pension MBPs has been siphoned exclusively into the salaries and retirement incomes of top-level executives.

This sounds like a serious problem. What has Bernie said about this?

Bernie voted against the passage of the Omnibus Spending Law, saying, “instead of investing in rebuilding our infrastructure to create millions of decent-paying jobs, this bad bill would let companies renege on the promises they made to their workers by cutting pension benefits of current retirees.”

Ever since the bill was passed, Bernie has been fighting insistently on behalf of unions to reinstate pension MBPs. In June 2015, he sponsored the Keep Our Pension Promises Act (KOPPA) – a bill that reverses the consequences of the Omnibus Spending Law.

In his speech introducing this bill, Bernie said:

“Hard-working retirees should not ever have to doubt their retirement security. We made a commitment 40 years ago to workers in this country that companies will never renege on a pension promise. We need to restore that commitment.”

Check out the full speech here:

 

The KOPPA would establish “a legacy fund within the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to make sure that multi-employer pension plans can continue to provide pension benefits to every eligible American for decades to come.” Bernie plans on funding the program by closing tax loopholes for wealthy corporations.

In a questionnaire administered by the AFL-CIO, Bernie also argued:

“The most important thing we can do to both preserve and expand defined benefit pension plans is to make it easier for workers to join unions. One of the most significant reasons for the decline in defined benefit pension plans is that the rights of workers to join together and bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions have been severely undermined.”

Learn more about how Bernie advocates for Unions and Workers’ Rights here.

Childcare & Education

Americans deserve higher quality and more affordable childcare and early childhood education.

Bernie believes that childcare and quality education must be accessible for all:

“[W]ith both parents now often at work, most working-class families can’t locate the high-quality and affordable child care they need for their kids. Quality education in America, from childcare to higher education, must be affordable for all. Without a high-quality and affordable educational system, we will be unable to compete globally and our standard of living will continue to decline.”

If we expect that both parents work full time jobs, there must then be access to reliable childcare for the children of these families.

Seems reasonable. What’s the deal?

According to Child Care Aware’s 2012 report, ”In 35 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost for center-based care for an infant was higher than a year’s in-state tuition and related fees at a four-year public college.“ While speaking during a roundtable with the Every Child Matters Education Fund, Bernie called the state of American childcare a “disaster”. Bernie has proposed the Foundations for Success Act to help address these lapses, “which will provide all children… ages 6 weeks to kindergarten, with access to a full-time, high quality, developmentally appropriate, early care and education program.”

Addressing Secretary of Education Bernie Arne Duncan, Bernie argued that “if we talk about family values, if we talk about children being the hope and the future of this country then we have to pay attention to those the most vulnerable amongst us. We need a revolution in child care.”

But what about when these kids get older?

Bernie wants children to have access to early childhood education, including universal Pre-K as well as educational supportive child care programs. In reference to his Foundations for Success Act, he said, “In a society with our resources, it is unconscionable to that we do not properly invest in our children from the very first stages of their lives.”

How is the U.S. doing on childhood education?

Out of 36 countries, the U.S. is ranked 17th for reading literacy, 27th in mathematical literacy, 20th in science literacy, and 18th overall in secondary education. From 1960 to 2006, we fell from first place to 18th out of 24 industrialized nations.

Those are just meaningless numbers, right?

Wrong. If we had closed this gap by 1998, it’s estimated that our GDP could have been $2.3 trillion higher by 2008. How’s that for numbers?

Ouch. So, what has Bernie done to try to improve childhood education?

In 2011, Bernie introduced the Foundations for Success Act. If it had passed, the bill would have awarded a grant to ten states that would allow them to create an Early Care and Education System. Some of the benefits include: providing all state residents with the opportunity to enroll children, ages six weeks to kindergarten age, in an early care and education program on a full time basis. This bill would give each child an opportunity to develop physical, social, and emotional skills; and improving school readiness by contributing to the cognitive development, character skills, and physical development of each child.

Learn more on the Education and Children pages.

Affordable Housing

Bernie believes that all families deserve affordable housing.

In December of 2014, Bernie made the following remark about housing costs:

“It is no secret that over the past decade, incomes have not come close to keeping pace with the escalating costs of housing.”

Currently, affordable housing is out of reach for many hardworking American families. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, “a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.” In fact,

“[F]amilies who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing.”

There is no state in the union where a minimum wage worker can spend under 30 percent of their income for a one bedroom apartment based on market prices.

minimum-work-hours-needed-to-pay-rent

What is Bernie doing to address housing issues?

Bernie leads the nation in efforts to provide affordable housing for working families. During his first elected position as Mayor of Burlington, he fought for working class families who were going to lose their homes. A loophole in federal funding allowed their landlords to convert the apartments into luxury condos. Bernie wasn’t going to allow that to happen:

“Bernie pounded his fist on the conference table in his office and told the owners, ‘Over my dead body are you going to displace 336 working families. You are not going to convert Northgate into luxury housing’,” remembered John Davis, former housing aide to Mayor Sanders. To this day, Northgate Apartments is owned by the people who live there. Northgate has “long-term restrictions to keep the buildings affordable for working families.”

Bernie helped create the Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) and the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO). CHT and CEDO ensured that housing costs weren’t market dependent and stayed affordable for working families. CHT received an award from the United Nations in 2009, and the model is spreading into countries like Australia, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

Bernie has called the CHT one of his proudest accomplishments as Mayor. A statement on Bernie’s Senate website describes the success of the CHT:

“The Champlain Housing Trust is now the nation’s largest community land trust, with more than 4,000 members and 2,000 affordable homes in northwestern Vermont. The concept has spread: there are now community-based housing trusts covering in every area of Vermont, and they have become the foundation of a unique-in-the-nation affordable housing network.”

Bernie’s fight for affordable housing continued over the course of his career. He has voted yes on providing $70 million for Section 8 Housing vouchers, which would add $70 million to the Section 8 housing voucher program and ultimately fund an additional 10,000 affordable housing vouchers.

In 2008, Bernie fought for the Housing Trust Fund, “which will play a significant role in building affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people, as well as the disabled.”

Nutritional Programs

More and more American families and their children are going hungry.

According to the National Center for Childhood Poverty, some 22 percent of American children live below the poverty level of $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that to cover basic expenses, a family of four needs at least $44,700 a year, a sum which is nearly twice the poverty level.

When considering this, approximately 45 percent of children live in low income families. Such high levels of children living in poverty or low income families is embarrassing for the wealthiest country on the planet. Proper nutrition is perhaps more important than other factors in childhood, as research indicates that it is crucial for proper brain development.

So, which people receive food stamps?

While there may be some who take advantage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), about 45 percent of all recipients are children. The SNAP for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is an essential program that leads to healthier infants, more nutritious diets, and better health care for children. Additionally, disabled individuals make up 19.8 percent, senior citizens count for eight percent, while adults without children who are not disabled make up 23.6 percent of people receiving food stamps.

In other words, the people on food stamps are the most vulnerable.

But don’t people on food stamps just buy junk food and cigarettes?

SNAP beneficiaries are only allowed to buy household foods and seeds for gardening. This means that SNAP beneficiaries cannot buy alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco, non-food items, supplements, medicines, hot foods, and restaurant or fast-food meals. In many cases, for those who live in a poverty-stricken area, access to fresh produce is limited, although that trend is changing thanks to some progressive entrepreneurs. Sure, there will always be people who try to game the system such as this example, but that shouldn’t discount the people who truly need help.

But I work hard. Why should I care about SNAP?

How a nation treats its least fortunate citizens says a lot about a country. Should a great nation like the United States only worry about the bottom line? Is our nation so consumed with money that we will simply refuse to help those in need? All Americans should be given the support they need to succeed, instead of being neglected or exploited.

With income inequality rising, an increase in food and nutritional funding is essential.

Bernie believes that individuals who truly need assistance should not be denied access to SNAP. In 2012, he voted against limiting eligibility and bonuses for SNAP in the Senate Amendments 2172 and 2165.

Bernie has also spoken out against the reduction of food stamps, saying, “at a time when the richest people in this country are becoming richer and the middle class is disappearing, it is beyond shameful to cut food programs and nutrition programs.”

Let’s take a step back. How has income inequality changed over the years?

Income inequality is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Currently, 0.3 percent of the wealth is owned by the bottom 40 percent of Americans, while 84 percent of the wealth is in the hands of the top 20 percent.

This impact is also felt in the federal minimum wage, which, was at its highest in 1968 at $8.54 (in 2014 dollars). With these figures, it’s hard to imagine anyone making minimum wage and working full-time to cover their basic needs. Just take a look at this sample monthly budget McDonald’s suggested to its employees in 2013.

ratio-of-household-wealth-to-nation

Historical Distribution of Wealth

But should we really be spending money on SNAP programs? I mean, what about fixing the budget and addressing our deficit?

During the 2015 fiscal year, 53.71 percent of discretionary spending went to the military, which amounts to $598.49 billion. Compare that to the $76 billion allocated to SNAP in 2014. Why are we willing to spend so much on protecting our citizens from foreign threats, but so skeptical of protecting our citizens from threats at home, like hunger?

FY 2015 Discretionary Budget from the National Priorities Project.

Further, these programs can be funded by raising taxes on the most wealthy members of society. Consider estimates that 25 percent of millionaires pay less taxes than members of the middle class. Is that right? While many have claimed that making the rich pay their fair share of taxes will cripple the economy, a recent study analysis reveals this to be far from the case.

 

I hear you. So what does Bernie have to say about these nutrition programs?

Addressing relentless attempts to cut back on these nutrition programs, he said, “It is unconscionable that the federal government would cut back on food and nutrition assistance to states as our nation struggles to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression.”

In an online interview, Bernie also expressed dismay about the fact that there are “about 46 and a half million people in [America] living in poverty. Many people have experienced lower wages. People are working 40/50 hours a week. They’re living in poverty.” Meanwhile, “22 percent of our children are living in poverty.”

As economic disparity rises, WIC programs that specifically help mothers, infants and children are especially important.

Bernie has a long history of supporting the needs of women, infants and children. In 1993, he co-sponsored the bill 1993-H1722 to fully fund the WIC program. He also signed the 2009-SR67 bill which encouraged funding for low-income kids to receive breakfast at school. Bernie believes that, “When we talk about the future of America, we cannot be talking about turning our backs on the children of this country.”

If we are already funding SNAP, why do we need WIC?

The WIC program is specifically designed for women, infants and children who need nutritional aid. In 2013, it was estimated that 43 million people were living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 14.7 million of those living in poverty were 18 years old and under, which amounts to 19.9 percent.

Further, it is estimated that in 2011, there were 8.6 million single mother households as opposed to 2.6 million single father households. Though single fathers are on the rise, 23 percent of single fathers live below the poverty line as opposed to 43 percent of mothers. If you compare the U.S. child poverty rate to 35 countries, America comes in second to last, right above Romania, according to a UNICEF report. Finland comes in at first place while Norway comes in at second place.

relative-child-poverty

UNICEF World Child Poverty Statistics

Isn’t giving extra attention to WIC a form of discrimination?

There have been numerous studies suggesting that the health of an individual begins in the fetal and childhood developmental stages. Nutritionally, pregnant women need more vitamins and minerals than the average person. If a mother does not get adequate nutrients in her body, adverse health effects can occur. If there are any deficiencies in a pregnant woman’s diet, her baby will be more susceptible to slow growth, neurological disorders, and even death. On top of infant development, child nutrition is equally important, often influencing a person’s health well into adulthood.

Why should Americans pay more money for programs like WIC?

Paying special attention to women, infants and children can influence the effectiveness of other government programs. For example, if a child does not have access to a breakfast meal, their attentiveness in school decreases. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, lack of access to meals may hurt children’s math scores and may influence children to “repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss it entirely.”

Therefore, educational funding is less successful without nutritional and food funding. Educational success also influences the future socioeconomic status of an individual. Moreover, nutrition plays a role on brain health according to Dr. Daniel D. Amen, M.D., as well as a study in 2000 that showed how students given “nutrient dense diets” had “40 percent less violent and other antisocial behavior than the placebo controls.”

What is Bernie saying about these issues?

Bernie has always been outspoken about the unfair status of the wealth gap. He has stated that “in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires in the country, yet over 50 percent of the children in our public schools are so low-income that they are eligible for the free or reduced price school lunch program.”

Bernie has often praised the benefits of Scandinavian governmental structures having less poverty than the U.S. Bernie believes that the future of America resides on the health of our mothers, infants and children.

Learn more about Bernie’s stance on income and wealth inequality here.

So why Bernie? Is he really committed to these issues?

Yes. Bernie has time and time again supported efforts to reduce poverty and support those who are the most vulnerable. He voted in support of WIC in 1993. He has been against the continual disenfranchisement of the poor and the, “Proliferation of millionaires and billionaires in this country.” Bernie believes that no one should go hungry, especially women, children and infants.

Homelessness

It is unacceptable that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world as many as 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness over the course of a year.

Are there really that many homeless people in America?

Sadly, yes. In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that on any given night, over 600,000 Americans are homeless. Of these homeless Americans, nearly 50,000 were military veterans. And although homelessness can be hard to measure over the course of a year, annual homelessness numbers are even worse; the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty estimates that between 2.5 and 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness each year. Further, over 7 million Americans have “lost their own homes and are doubled-up with others due to economic necessity.”

Over half a million Americans homeless every night – and 50,000 veterans? That’s horrible. What has Bernie said about this?

This is clearly unacceptable.” Bernie is especially troubled that veterans who served our country are transitioning out of military service and winding up living on the streets. In 2008, Bernie outlined specific steps he saw as critical in addressing homelessness:

“I will be playing a very active role to provide solutions to these very serious problems. First, I will be leading the fight to increase home heating assistance by $800 million.  In the richest country on the face of the earth, we must do all that we can to ensure that no-one goes cold this winter.

“I will work with Senator Sherrod Brown to pass an extra $40 million for The Emergency Food Assistance Program to make sure that food banks in Vermont and throughout the country have the food they need so that no-one goes hungry this winter.  I will work with Senator Patrick Leahy to secure the enactment of the Farm Bill which would provide an extra $6 million in nutrition assistance to Vermonters through an increase in the Food Stamp program and federal assistance to Vermont’s Food Banks. And I will work with Senator John Kerry to pass the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act to provide the resources necessary to build at least 1.5 million affordable housing rental units over the next decade while creating 1.8 million new jobs in the process.”

Bernie also applauded Pope Francis for issuing an apostolic exhortation which pointedly denounced an economic system that allows for such homelessness: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” Following the release of this exhortation, Bernie remarked:

“At a time when the gap between rich and everyone else is growing wider, at a time when Wall Street and large financial institutions are exerting extraordinary power over the American and world economy, I applaud the pope for continuing to speak out on these enormously important issues. Pope Francis is reminding people of all walks of life, and all religious backgrounds, that we can and must do better.”

In August of 2011, Bernie said, specifically in response to concerns about veterans without proper housing:

“Veterans’ homelessness is a national disgrace. In recent years we have made some good progress in lowering the rate of veterans’ homelessness in Vermont and throughout the country, but we still have a long way to go.”

OK, Bernie’s said a lot about homelessness. But what has he actually done?

As mentioned in the above affordable housing section, Bernie has consistently fought to make affordable housing available for all Americans. Specifically, Bernie helped create two organizations in Vermont to ensure housing prices remained affordable and voted for an additional $70 million in Section 8 housing vouchers.

Further, Bernie introduced legislation creating an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. This program allowed for $3.92 billion to be distributed in block grants to help make housing more accessible to Americans, including spending $57 million to help disabled veterans adapt to their homes. Sheila Crowley, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition hailed the passage of legislation to create the Housing Trust Fund as “a great victory” for the homeless and poor.

Bernie also introduced the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2013 which aimed to completely eliminate homelessness among veterans by 2015, arguing that we must “remove any…barriers to housing for veterans.” The bill was strongly endorsed by John Driscoll, the president of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, who called the bill “the most comprehensive and well-resourced homeless veterans assistance bill ever introduced in Congress.”