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Congressional candidates and experts weigh in on Social Security

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WATERTOWN — Social Security has become a buzz term in the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District.

In a series of stump speeches and visits across the district, Democratic candidate Aaron G. Woolf has made it the widest plank in his platform, calling it the centerpiece of his campaign.

And Mr. Woolf has repeatedly taken his opponent, Republican Elise M. Stefanik, to task for either not taking a position on Social Security or for taking the position that Social Security should be privatized.

“She uses words like ‘modernize’ to describe her plans for Social Security,” Mr. Woolf said in Watertown Thursday. “But this is just DC talk for privatizing the program without putting herself on the record for saying so.”

But Ms. Stefanik, who worked in both the George W. Bush White House and on the vice presidential campaign of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., takes exception with Mr. Woolf’s characterization of her position.

When she says “modernize,” she said, she doesn’t mean privatize.

Instead, she is proposing three policies to ensure that the Social Security program continues into the future. A July report from the federal government estimated that the Social Security trust fund will be depleted by 2033, at which time payments would be reduced to about 3/4 of the amount of benefits promised to retirees.

To remedy this, Ms. Stefanik is proposing:

• Raising the retirement age for future generations, with no changes for those in or near retirement

• Means-testing Social Security so those with fewer resources receive a greater percentage of benefits

• Adjusting the cost of living using a chain-weighted consumer price index, which accounts for substitutions and changes consumers make in their spending habits to account for changing costs of certain goods and services

Ms. Stefanik said she would also consider, as an option, lifting a cap on payroll tax on income above $117,000 — an unusual position for a Republican.

“Three of the four of those have been well flushed out and put forward by both parties,” said John L. Palmer, Dean-Emeritus of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and a former public trustee for Medicare and Social Security. “The one’s that’s tricky is the means-testing.”

In place of means-testing, Mr. Palmer said that slowing the rate of growth of benefits that high wage earners will received in retirement is a preferred solution.

For his part, Mr. Woolf said he wants to preserve the program by growing the economy and creating jobs — a position Mr. Palmer said would not be sufficient to maintain the entitlement program.

“It’s not responsible to just say ‘We’ll grow the economy.’ That’s not Social Security reform. Something’s going to have to be done sooner or later,” Mr. Palmer said.

For Matthew J. Funiciello, the Green Party candidate, that something means raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and eliminating the cap on the payroll tax on income above $250,000, a measure introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

But raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is not likely to happen on the federal level anytime soon and may even have a detrimental effect on Social Security, according to Mr. Palmer.

However, taxing wealthier individuals would make a very substantial contribution to the Social Security trust fund, though it is not a complete remedy in itself, Mr. Palmer said.

For now, Mr. Woolf said, Social Security should stay the way it is. But Mr. Woolf also said he would also be in favor of raising the minimum wage.

“I think we should raise the minimum wage, I think we should ensure paycheck fairness for women, I think we should improve the economy — and that’s the best and first step we should take towards improving the long-term solvency of Social Security,” he said.

It’s no surprise that Mr. Woolf has been stumping around the district in support of Social Security, according to Raymond E. Petersen, a political science professor at Jefferson Community College and director of the college’s Center for Community Studies.

“This is a much more powerful issue than even minimum wage because elderly voters are much more reliable voters,” Mr. Petersen said.

But the extent to which Mr. Woolf is able to gain traction with his criticisms of Ms. Stefanik hinge on how well he is able to connect her to the policies put forward by president Bush and Mr. Ryan, according to Mr. Petersen.

Despite the fact that Ms. Stefanik touts her experience working in the White House and for Mr. Ryan as an important qualification for office, she has repeatedly sought to distance herself from many of the policies associated with either Mr. Ryan or Mr. Bush, arguing that she is running for Congress to put forward new ideas, something she faulted Mr. Woolf for not doing.

“He hasn’t put a new idea forth that is new or innovative,” she said.

She is helped in her efforts to distance herself from the Social Security policies ideas of Mr. Bush by the fact that privatization is no longer in vogue, according to Mr. Palmer.

“Privatization is pretty much off the table as a serious idea,” Mr. Palmer said. “Bush did put it forward as a major initiative but then the stock market tanked and people became much more aware of how risky that is.”

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