Yes to taxes, no to cuts

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December 10, 2012, 7:10 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - More than 500 union members, senior citizen group activists and others gathered at historic Faneuil Hall in Boston on Monday as fiscal cliff talks pressed on in Washington, demanding no cuts to Social Security or Medicare and higher taxes on top earners.

“The rich need to pay their fair share,’’ said John Murphy of Carpenters Local 40, an early participant in the Occupy Boston protests. “The CEOs, the banks, Wall Street have taken too much from the working class, and it's time -- it's time -- to take this country back.’’

As a share of the federal budget, Social Security spending is about 20 percent, Medicare and Medicaid and related programs are about 21 percent. In Washington speak, they are called “entitlement programs,” meaning people are automatically entitled to receive the promised benefits and Congress and the president have to come up with the funds to pay for them.

But rally participant Susan Graham of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East bristles at that word.

“I am not an entitlement. I am working mother,’’ Graham said. “I am a contributor to society and a taxpaying Mom.’’

At current levels of taxing and promised future spending, it’s widely agreed that Social Security, and especially Medicare, can't be sustained. A new analysis by former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox and Bill Archer, a former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, shows that while the government deficit this year is $1.1 trillion and the national debt is $15.96 trillion, the “unfunded liability,” or projected gap between future benefits and future tax collections under current law, is $20.5 trillion, and the unfunded liability for Medicare is $42.8 trillion.

By most accounts, Social Security can be made actuarially viable for many decades by a slight increase in future retirement eligibility ages, or adjustments to the inflation measure used to calculate increases in benefits, or by subjecting income above $113,700 a year to Social Security tax. Medicare is widely seen as the far more difficult program to make financially sustainable.

U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Somerville) alluded to the reality that some kind of adjustments may need to be made to Social Security and Medicare, but stressed, “There's ways to make tough decisions that don't have everything flowing downhill and landing on the people at the bottom.’’

U.S. Rep. John Tierney (D-Salem) agreed: “We will not balance this budget on the backs of people in the middle class only, or people aspiring to the middle class.’’

But Murphy fears the voice of middle-class workers is not being heard in the fiscal cliff fight: “Corporations and Wall Street can buy our politicians and silence our voice,’’ Murphy said. “That's not a democracy.’’

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