Social Security reforms popular, but improbableNews added by Benefits Pro on July 14, 2014

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By Marlene Satter

Women, don’t hold your breath. For that matter, no one should be getting blue in the face waiting for Social Security to change for the better.

So says a study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, authored by IWPR President Heidi Hartmann and based on interviews aimed at forecasting what might happen five years out.

The study’s researchers based their report on interviews with some 30 researchers, policymakers and advocates. They not only asked about how to change Social Security so that it better supported women and other vulnerable groups, but also queried those experts about the likelihood of any of the changes they recommended actually coming to pass in the years ahead.

The study identified a number of measures that had strong support on both sides of the aisle — as well as considered the likelihood of meaningful change in the current stalemated atmosphere in Washington.

Such common-sense improvements to Social Security as credits for caregiving, disability eligibility for homemakers and a boost in benefits were all talked about by the experts interviewed for the study, but, of course, little progress on any of those fronts has actually occurred.

It might be surprising to learn that the adequacy of benefits for those most in need was considered a priority. However, at that time, the perception prevailed that benefits, or increases in benefits, needed to be cut in order to support the solvency of the system as a whole — this despite the public’s opposition to such cuts. For benefits to increase, however, it is likely that the long-term solvency of Social Security will have to be addressed as well — something else that has not yet happened.

Other surprises include strong support for benefit changes that would recognize the degree of change in women’s lives. Such things as instituting caregiving credits and allowing homemakers to be eligible for disability benefits, changing the way eligibility is determined and possibly changing the survivor benefit are all factors that got serious bipartisan consideration — although perhaps with different proposed methods of execution.

At the time of the interviews, a number of interviewees predicted that it was unlikely that a Congress unable to agree on a budget would be able to muster itself to make substantial changes in Social Security. That has only become more likely in the current political climate, which finds positions hardened among both Republicans and Democrats and compromise less likely than ever.

The one thing both sides agreed on that the public might find reassuring is that an increase in the retirement age is unlikely — not just because it does not have the support of the public, but also because older people know that “there are simply not enough employers willing and able to provide jobs to older workers.”

“From the vantage point of 2014, the political climate in the U.S. Congress has become much more polarized,” said Hartmann. “The failure to achieve any bipartisan reform to date suggests that Social Security remains a third rail in American politics.”

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