Here’s why Social Security is a big issue for 1 out of 5 voters in this NC race

For Janet Garner-Mullins, Social Security is more than a promise. It’s a necessity.

“I’ve worked for almost 30 years in hoping that money would be there when I need it,” said Garner-Mullins, 63, a retired insurance adjuster from Charlotte who now depends on a Social Security disability benefit.

For her and many others, few issues are more important.

That’s why it’s become a flashpoint in the race between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris. At least one liberal group has spent more than $600,000 on TV ads saying Harris plans to cut Social Security and Medicare.

“That is a page right out of the Democrat and left-wing playbook,” Harris told Fox News radio last week. “That is accusing me that we’re going to end Social Security and Medicare as we know it. . . . It’s just vicious and it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

There are 116,000 people in the 9th Congressional District over 65, according to an analysis by Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer. Another 100,000 or more stand to collect benefits by the time the Social Security trust fund runs dry in 15 years.

The fund is expected to run out by 2034, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s three years earlier than was projected at the start of the decade.

The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, whose board includes former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles of Charlotte, estimates that Social Security beneficiaries would face a 21 percent benefit cut when the trust fund runs out.

In North Carolina, there are more than 1.3 million people over 65, according to AARP. Social Security benefits constitute the only income for more than a third of them.

There have been many proposed solutions to try to ensure the solvency of the retirement program.

In 2010 a commission headed by Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson recommended, among other things, raising the retirement age to 68 in 2050 and 69 in 2075.

Both Harris and McCready have vowed to protect Social Security. But they differ in how.

Adviser Aaron Simpson said McCready would try to rescind last year’s tax cut for the top 1 percent of Americans, cuts he said “are responsible for 83 percent of the cost of the plan, when fully implemented.” According to FactCheck.org, however, the figure is misleading since for most of the coming decade, only up to a quarter of the tax cuts benefit the top 1 percent.

He said McCready also would remove the payroll cap for people making $1 million or more a year. Now, wages subject to the Social Security tax are capped at $128,400.

On his website, McCready says he also opposes “any efforts to turn Social Security over to the stock market and gamble seniors’ retirement.”

Harris would not raise the payroll cap, according to adviser Andy Yates.

“He’s also been on the record for years that we must honor our promise and our commitment to our seniors and must not reduce any Social Security benefits or Medicare benefits for retirees or near-retirees,” Yates said.

In a statement to a conservative voting site this year, Harris said, “Social Security is in a death spiral.”

“The current system is going to fail and needs to be completely over-hauled,” he said. “However, we must honor our promises to existing retirees and those nearing retirement age keeping the current system in place for those folks.

“In order to sustain a system that resembles Social Security, the system will need to operate in a balanced manner meaning that individuals only receive what they pay in, supplemented if desired by a government budget that should be based not on the whims of political gain but economic sensibility.”

With a rising budget deficit and national debt, Congress could take on Social Security and other entitlements. In an interview last week with Bloomberg, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said it’s hard to address the debt without addressing entitlements.

He said it would be “very difficult to do entitlement reform, and we’re talking about Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid,” with one party in charge of Congress and the White House. “(It’s) not a Republican problem . . . It’s a bipartisan problem: unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill