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Ask the candidates: How will you preserve Social Security?

Congress raised the payroll taxes that provide the bulk of Social Security revenue in 1983. (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Of the many important decisions policy makers face this election season, one of the most critical is how to strengthen and preserve Social Security to ensure its availability for future generations.

Born in the depths of the Great Depression, Social Security is showing signs of financial distress. Sooner or later, our national leaders will need to step in to secure its long-term future.

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And, whether you’re a potential beneficiary of Social Security or simply among those paying into the system, all Americans have a stake in the debate over the federal insurance program.

In Maryland, more than 3.3 million of us are currently paying into Social Security. Additionally, more than 748,000 Marylanders, or nearly 83 percent of those 65 and older, are already receiving Social Security. Marylanders earn their benefits through a lifetime of hard work. As a result, it insures families against the loss of income caused by retirement, disability or death.

The program has had a major impact on reducing poverty. More than 22 million Americans would be added to the poverty rolls if they had to depend on their non-Social Security income, as reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. While most are elderly, almost a third are under 65 and a million are children. The number of senior citizens living in poverty, which is currently around 8.8 percent, would rise to 40.5 percent when you take away the benefits under Social Security.

There’s no doubt that Social Security, which celebrates its 83rd anniversary this month, continues to be a pillar of financial security for many. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law on Aug. 14, 1935, to protect ordinary Americans “against the loss of a job and poverty-ridden old age” — concerns that still ring familiar to many Americans.

Social Security’s strength over eight decades is a credit to its financing system and the commitment of past congresses and presidents to work cooperatively to secure its financial future. Payments to current and soon-to-retiree beneficiaries are safely on schedule. Still, the prospects are bleaker for the long-term unless national leaders take needed action.

Without congressional action to make the program financially sound, Social Security will only be able to pay full benefits for just over 15 years. In 2034, benefits will have to be cut by 25 percent, according to the trustees who oversee Social Security.

Many experts also believe Social Security should be updated to meet changing realities. Life expectancy is increasing, people are having fewer children, and there are more women in the workforce than when the program was created. Policymakers also need to be cognizant that current benefit levels are modest and that people rely heavily on Social Security benefits — even though the retirement landscape has changed, with fewer people having guaranteed pensions.

Without a doubt, keeping Social Security strong and solvent for current and future generations is too important to be lost in the fog of campaign season.

Americans can take with pride the fact that the government has always honored its commitment to Social Security recipients. Still, Social Security’s long-term financial picture is one that is now vital for our leaders to address. Doing nothing is not an option. It’s imperative that candidates for office commit, and remain steadfast to their promises, to preserve and strengthen Social Security for both today’s retirees and future generations.

Jim Campbell (jcampbell@aarp.org) is AARP Maryland state president and a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates. More information about AARP’s “Be the Difference” voting campaign can be found here: aarp.org/vote.

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