More kala for the kupuna

LIHUE — With Social Security benefits often the primary source of income for the elderly, thousands of state residents have supported protection and expansion of the program.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and State Rep. Chris Lee held a press conference Thursday in Honolulu as part of a rally with activists to urge other state and federal leaders to support seniors and promise not to cut benefits.

Schatz co-sponsored a bill authored by fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Harkin of Iowa to expand Social Security benefits for seniors and veterans. He is also supporting similar bill  by Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.

The bill includes three provisions to eliminate the taxable maximum over five years with incremental increases from 2.48 percent in 2014 to 12.4 percent in 2018. It would immediately address cost-of-living adjustments and gradually increase benefits to newly-eligible beneficiaries to 15 percent by 2033.

If approved, the bill would extend the Social Security program until 2049, and increase benefits by about $65 per month.

The bill would remove the capping of annual income and employers would also pay more in payroll taxes.

“Currently, a person making $114,000 in income pays the same dollar amount in Social Security tax as someone who makes $3 or $4 million in income. We don’t think that’s fair. We think that’s a problem in the tax code that has to be remedied,” Schatz said.

“We ‘baby boomers’ have worked all our lives for this benefit and it should never be cut or taken away,” said State Rep. Dee Morikawa. “Everyone should pay their fair share because this is a benefit that future generations will appreciate and need when they become eligible.”

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is running for Senate against Schatz, said she supports raising the taxable maximum.

“I am committed to ensuring that our hardworking retirees receive the benefits they earned and expect into the future and will continue to work to defeat short sighted attempts to balance the budget on the backs of seniors,” Hanabusa said in a statement.

Kauai’s senior population

Kauai’s 60 and older population is more than 14,700, and many of them rely on Social Security.

“For some, it is their only source of income or a large percentage of their income,” said Charlyn Nakamine, program specialist for the county Agency on Elderly Affairs. “We would support measures to assure that Social Security is solvent for our current and future seniors.”

A Kauai resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said he became sick at age 47 and could no longer work at his print shop job. He has since received Social Security disability benefits and it is his only source of assistance.

“If I don’t get that, I ain’t got nothing,” he said. “My main concern would be if we could get dental coverage, otherwise everything else is fine with me.”

AARP reports that 15.5 percent of Hawaii recipients rely on Social Security for 90 percent of income. Nearly 33 percent rely on it for 50 percent or more. Around 90 percent of the recipients live on around $14,000 a year — under the federal poverty level.

Barbara Kim Stanton, AARP state director, said Social Security is the most successful federal program for helping people remain financially secure at a time when the bottom falls out and there is nothing else to help with a disability or old age.

“What we don’t want happening is for SSI to be used as a bargaining chip,” Stanton said. “Social Security didn’t cause the budget deficit and it’s something that people have worked a lifetime to earn.”

There are around 240,456 Social Security beneficiaries in Hawaii, or about one in six people, Stanton said.

There are 1,002 Kauai residents receiving Social Security disability assistance. This includes 846 who are blind, and 76 under the age of 18, according to the Office of Retirement and Disability Policy.

The benefits collectively account for more than $3.1 billion statewide, and $2.5 billion to recipients ages 65 and older, Stanton said.

Republican response

David Chang, chairman of the Republic Party of Hawaii, said he is for protecting Social Security to make sure it is there for the next generation.

The solutions, he said, are with reforming Social Security from the inside-out, which includes discussions on delaying benefits by raising the age of retirement, which is possible as people become healthier and work longer.

“We are concerned with the longevity of the program and how we are going to continue to pay for it,” Chang said.

A system that maximizes benefits to people while keeping the system solvent is preferable to cutting benefits or raising taxes, he said. It includes discussion of more incentives for businesses to hire disabled workers.

“If we reform things in that aspect we don’t have to cut it,” Chang said. “If you are just looking at the benefit side and not looking at the cost side then our country is going to be in deep trouble.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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