If you are like me, starting your day means reading the news. Every morning I read from a collection of websites, usually Politico, CNN and The Hill. Over the past few months, there has been a barrage of stories about the debt ceiling. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find someone who could go 24 hours without finding an article on this topic.
For people not like me, who are not reading Politico three times a day, the debt ceiling is the cap on the United States’ debt which is allowed to accumulate to pay the federal government’s bills. In January, an article published by Brookings entitled “7 things to know about the debt limit,” authors Leonard Burman and William Gale said, “Raising the debt limit is not about new spending; it is about paying for previous choices policymakers legislated[…] Debt limit debates are about whether Congress should authorize the government to borrow to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. Oddly enough, when Congress authorizes new spending and new taxes, it does not automatically authorize the borrowing needed to make up any difference. Arguing about increasing the debt limit is like having a person charge vacation expenses to his credit card and then debate whether he should pay the credit card company when the bill comes due.”
Not surprisingly, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. can’t agree on how to raise the debt ceiling. About half of lawmakers want the debt ceiling raised without conditions and the other half want to tie raising the debt ceiling to cutting spending on vital domestic social safety net programs.
So, what happens if the U.S. government defaults on its debt? As you probably guessed, it’s not good. First, the government would have to prioritize in what order it wants to pay its obligations. From a senior’s perspective what does that mean for Social Security? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t entirely clear because our government has never defaulted. Experts believe a default could cause problems in the administration of benefits. For example, if the government doesn’t have funds to pay all its bills, how does this impact the timely delivery of Social Security payments? According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, for 40% of Social Security receipts, Social Security accounts for 90% of their income. Imagine how delays could impact seniors ability to pay for their housing, nutrition and health care needs.
Recently, the House of Representatives passed legislation to raise the debt ceiling. However, this legislation conditions raising the debt ceiling on cutting future government budgets which could negatively impact programs that benefit older Americans. In March, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia Fudge wrote a letter to Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) detailing how drastic cuts to HUD’s budget could result in evictions. According to the White House this legislation could cause 600,000 families to lose rental assistance, which includes seniors.
Also, while there are no proposed direct cuts to Social Security benefits, the White House indicated cuts to domestic spending will impact Social Security field offices. The White House reported, “With fewer staff available, seniors would also be forced to endure longer wait times when they call for assistance for both Social Security and Medicare, and as many as 240 Social Security field offices could be forced to close or shorten the hours they are open to the public.”
According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll 65% of Americans believe the debt ceiling issue should be separate from cuts to federal spending. The full faith and credit of the U.S. government should never be held in question. Therefore, it’s imperative that Congress raise the debt ceiling without conditions. There is a time and place for everything and making it more difficult for seniors to access Social Security benefits or jeopardizing their affordable housing is never the answer to our country’s debt.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.