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Social Security: Not Just for Seniors in Washington

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Friday, August 7, 2015   

SEATTLE - The 80th birthday of Social Security is next week, and every 2016 presidential candidate has ideas for changing the system - whether that means strengthening it or scrapping it. It's expected to be among the topics of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders' remarks this weekend in Seattle.

More than 1.2 million Washingtonians receive Social Security benefits.

While the importance of Social Security to seniors is most often in the spotlight, said Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, the program also has helped stabilize the economy overall.

"Even in times when the economy collapses, Social Security income continues to come in," she said. "It helps not only families survive, but it helps local businesses stay strong. It's amazingly important in smaller communities."

The current income cap is slightly more than $118,000. For people who earn more, their additional income isn't subject to the Social Security tax. There's been much discussion of raising the cap, so that wealthier people contribute more. Some consider that more fair; others see it as unfair.

More than nine in 10 Washingtonians age 65 and older are Social Security recipients, but another 213,000 people with disabilities, their spouses or children, receive benefits - as well as about 110,000 family members of workers who have died. Watkins once was part of those statistics, when her husband passed away, leaving her with two sons, ages 9 and 11.

"Within three weeks, we had our first benefit checks coming in," she said. "Every month until my younger son turned 18, Social Security income continued to come into our household. It just made a huge difference. It just helped us weather that storm."

Until the 1980s, survivor benefits continued for children until they finished college. Now, they end when a child turns 18 and graduates from high school. Watkins would like to see the college benefit reinstated.

Another potential change is to calculate benefits by averaging fewer years of a worker's income. Watkins said that would benefit those who are unemployed for a time, or must take time off for family caregiving - and those zero-income years affect their benefits later in life.

"Changing that from 35 years to 30 years would just provide that adjustment that allows for family care, for those economic downturns when people are out of the workforce for no fault of their own," she said.

She predicted that candidates' views on the future of Social Security will be critical in the next election.


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