Every year, around my birthday, I get a letter from my Uncle Sam. With each successive year, I appreciate it more, especially in those years when my retirement nest egg has shrunk rather than grown. The letter from the Social Security Administration is as specific as the promises of my 401(k) are vague. The size of my retirement accounts when I finally retire is anyone's guess, but Social Security lays it out in dollars and cents: If you retire at 66, you'll get this much a month, as long as you live. If you work until you're 70, you'll get this much. If you become disabled, here's how much you'll get each month.
Every year, around my birthday, I get a letter from my Uncle Sam. With each successive year, I appreciate it more, especially in those years when my retirement nest egg has shrunk rather than grown.
The letter from the Social Security Administration is as specific as the promises of my 401(k) are vague. The size of my retirement accounts when I finally retire is anyone's guess, but Social Security lays it out in dollars and cents: If you retire at 66, you'll get this much a month, as long as you live. If you work until you're 70, you'll get this much. If you become disabled, here's how much you'll get each month.
The closer I get to retirement, the better it feels to know that at least that much will be coming in every month - and that those checks won't run out before my time does.
But in the most recent letter from Uncle Sam, I noticed something I hadn't seen before. Underneath the projections of my future income is an asterisk. "Your estimated benefits are based on current law," it says in bold type. "Congress has made changes in the law in the past, and can do so at any time."
So whether Uncle Sam keeps that promise is up to Congress, and it's pretty clear some members of Congress have no interest in keeping it. When the tea party caucus - the tail that wags the Republican House - demands "reforms" to shore up Social Security's finances, then takes all new taxes off the table, cutting benefits is all that's left.
Social Security is still enough of a third rail that most politicians avoid coming right out and saying they want to break the social contract that has kept the elderly and disabled out of poverty for 75 years. But the rhetoric on the right increasingly points in that direction.
The first thread in this rhetorical assault is the constant reference to Social Security as an "entitlement." That's really the wrong word, and it's starting to grate on people. "Entitlement" typically refers to something one expects to get but didn't do anything to earn.
I turn to page 3 of my letter from Uncle Sam. There it lists every dollar I've earned, starting with my after-school job as a soda jerk at a local drug store and continuing through 32 uninterrupted years of toil in the newspaper business.
Page 3 reminds me that 6.2 percent of every dollar earned was withheld from my paycheck for Social Security, matched by 6.2 percent paid by my employer. It notes the grand total I've paid in Social Security taxes over my long career in the workforce. Yes, I understand that the money I contributed was not invested in a separate fund in my name. It went to cover payments to those who had already retired. But don't accuse me of having an "entitlement" mentality: I gave at the office, with every single paycheck.
The second thread in the assault on Social Security is the myth that Social Security is broke, that all the Social Security Trust Fund holds is a bunch of "worthless IOUs" from the federal government. It's true that, while contributions to Social Security have exceeded disbursements, the fund has loaned money to the federal government.
But those loans aren't worthless scraps of paper held in a mythical lockbox. They are federal government bonds, no less binding than the ones owned by investors around the world, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. We just went through a long, frustrating debate over the importance of avoiding what would have been the first-ever default on government bonds. Do the critics really think we can or should default on the bonds held by the Social Security Trust Fund?
The third thread is the complaint, now growing to a roar, that half of all Americans pay no federal income tax. Often this is shortened to "pay no taxes," which is blatantly untrue. Most workers pay more in payroll taxes than income taxes, but to the super-wealthy, who pay payroll taxes on just the first $106,800 of income, the payroll tax is an afterthought.
In the right-wing think tanks financed by the super-wealthy, an insulting shorthand has developed, defining Americans as either "takers" or "givers," depending on whether they benefit from government programs or support them.
The non-income-tax-paying "takers" presumably include slackers like my 99-year-old father, who worked for 60 years, faithfully paying income and Social Security taxes all those years - except when he was serving his country in World War II. My greedy 2-year-old granddaughter didn't pay income taxes this year either, come to think of it.
All this talk of takers and givers is preliminary to cutting Social Security and other parts of the social contract, but it also seems to foreshadow something I wouldn't have seen coming a year ago: The no-tax party is no longer just pushing tax cuts for the rich. Now they are looking to raise taxes on the poor and middle class.
Little noted in this summer's deficit debate was that one of the priorities President Barack Obama didn't get from the negotiations was an extension of the payroll tax cut enacted in January, which is worth $1,000 for working families. The Republicans have finally found a tax cut they don't support.
Social Security is not broke. Now that the boomers are retiring, it is sending out more money than it takes in, but the bonds it holds are enough to meet its obligations for 26 years. Its solvency could be assured for the foreseeable future if Congress simply lifted the cap on income subject to the payroll tax to, say, $180,000.
Practical fixes are of little interest, though, to those whose objections to federal spending are purely ideological, who think of their fellow Americans as "givers" vs. "takers." But they may have a rude awakening when they find how many of their foot-soldiers are counting on Social Security.
I got a letter last week from one of them, making a strong defense of the tea party. But she added a p.s: "I am also not too happy about Social Security and Medicare being labeled 'entitlements.' They are obligations by the U.S. government to those who have paid into these systems."
There may have to be some changes made to firm up the finances of Social Security, Medicare and other government programs. But voters should be able to distinguish between candidates who are committed to keeping Uncle Sam's promises and those looking for ways to break them.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.