Discuss Social Security at debates

Paula Cunningham

You wouldn’t know it from most the news coverage. But voters really do want presidential candidates to lay out their plans to keep Social Security financially sound for future generations.

That’s why AARP’s Take A Stand campaign is calling on CNN and Fox News to push the candidates much harder on this important issue, starting with the debates in Detroit and Flint this week.

In Michigan, Social Security keeps millions in the middle class — and 529,000 above the poverty line. 1.4 million residents depend on it, and they want it to be there for their children and grandchildren.

They want to know more about the Social Security proposals that have quietly entered the playing field. And televised debates provide a great opportunity to serve that need. Candidates can talk about their views in detail, and really help voters understand how they and their families could be affected by changes to Social Security.

But so far this opportunity has been wasted. Moderators from the major TV networks have not pressed candidates on the subject. And on those occasions when Social Security has come up, they’ve let candidates dodge the question or speak in meaningless soundbites. We believe it is time to go past cliches and vague generalities and have a Social Security debate that can help our country move forward.

That’s why AARP’s Take A Stand campaign has launched a petition drive calling on the major networks to ask all candidates how they would address this important issue, starting with the Fox and CNN debates on March 3 and March 6 respectively. We’re delivering the first hundred thousand of these to these networks in advance of these debates and will continue collecting and delivering them to the other networks until voters get the real debate they deserve.

Social Security is becoming even more important in Michigan and throughout the country. Employer pensions are vanishing. The cost of health care and other necessities keeps going up. Yet more people than ever may live into their 80s, 90s and beyond, with limited means to pay the bills. If our leaders don’t act, future retirees could lose up $10,000 a year.

So the stakes really matter. Proposals that candidates offer for Social Security should be fully debated, and people should understand how these ideas could affect them and their families. All proposals should get careful consideration, with a serious discussion of pros and cons.

For example, some candidates support raising the retirement age, noting that people live years longer than when Social Security was created in the 1930s. But what happens to people with physically demanding jobs who can’t work longer? Some candidates say Social Security benefits should be increased, noting that many retirees struggle with low benefits. But how do we pay for benefit increases given all the budget realities?

Voters should not be left in the dark about the answers. Americans pay into Social Security throughout their working lives, and they deserve to know — in detail — how every presidential candidate would keep the promise of Social Security for future generations. Those who think they’re ready to be president should be willing to say what they would do to keep Social Security strong.

While some candidates have been more forthcoming than others, major questions remain about all their proposals, and we urge the networks to press the candidates harder on Social Security.

Having a real plan to update Social Security is a true test of presidential leadership in 2016. The moderators of the upcoming debates — Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace at Fox News and Anderson Cooper at CNN — should help us find out whether the candidates pass that test.

Paula D. Cunningham is state director of AARP Michigan.