For this week’s episode, Rebecca sat down with Kathleen Romig, a dear friend and colleague who today serves as the director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the nation’s leading organizations that focuses on economic and budget policy for low-income families. To mark the eighty-eighth anniversary of Social Security, they had a far-ranging conversation about the history behind the program, who’s helped by Social Security today, and why there’s no room for cuts; the importance of moving beyond technocratic, budget-focused narratives to put people at the center of policy; the human consequences of bureaucratic disentitlement; Kathleen’s own path to combining heart and head in her work and how that’s made her a more effective policy advocate; and more.

Links from this episode:

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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I go behind the music with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.

And this week I am so incredibly excited to sit back down with Kathleen Romig, a dear, dear friend who has dedicated her career to protecting and strengthening Social Security for older and disabled people and families across the U.S. I first got to meet Kathleen years ago—I won’t mention how many years ago!—when we were both much younger and much hipper. And she is truly one of my favorite people in this work and someone I count a dear friend, as I said. Today, she serves as the director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the nation’s leading organizations that focuses on economic and budget policy for low-income families in the U.S. Kathleen! Welcome, welcome to the show. I’m so excited for this conversation!!!

KATHLEEN ROMIG: Thank you, Rebecca. Me too.

VALLAS: So, we’re gonna talk about a lot, and we’re gonna talk about Social Security and lots of other things, too. But first, I wanna give you the chance to introduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners and to share how you come to economic policy and economic justice work. So, talk a little bit about your path. You’re now leading Center on Budget’s Social Security and disability policy, as I mentioned, but how did you get there? What was the path to that position?

ROMIG: Sure. Well, I grew up in Detroit in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and then as now, Detroit is a really poor city, a lot of, so I saw a lot of poverty, and I saw what came of that. And I always wanted to work on something related to poverty, but I didn’t know exactly what. I mean, I felt it really as a calling for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a very religious household with a big emphasis on social justice, and I really saw that as a calling, and I wanted to do something in the social policy sphere. So, I studied social policy in school at Michigan State, but I didn’t really, I never really thought about Social Security until after I graduated.

And that summer was very formative for me. I interned at the Center on Budget, and my boss was Wendell Primus, who had just resigned in protest over the Clinton-era welfare reform law. And so, he was sort, that was a big deal. He and some other people, Peter Edelman and other people, resigned. And that has been such an important relationship in my life to Wendell. And that summer, Wendell was working on Social Security because President Bush had just started his Social Security Commission. And so, we were reading what they were coming up with and reacting to it. And I was learning a lot from Wendell and others, including Kilolo Kijakazi, who was at the Center on Budget at that time, about how important Social Security is and how damaging it could be to cut it or to privatize it, as President Bush was proposing at that time. So, I got really into it, and then I was kind of hooked, and I stuck with that. And I came to understand how important Social Security is for fighting poverty. And that’s not how I had really seen it before. Like most people, I just saw it as a program for older people. My grandparents got it, but I didn’t think of it as something that was really fundamental in the fight against poverty, which I do now. So, yeah, that’s how I really got into the topic.

VALLAS: I love that story. And also, I imagine a lot of folks might find it relatable, that younger people don’t necessarily think about Social Security being the issue that’s gonna light them up. But I know this was my story, too, right? I didn’t get into law and policy thinking I was gonna spend all this time in that domain. But there is something about the Social Security system that has its own kind of magic for people who care deeply about common dignity and common humanity, because it does provide a floor in ways that other programs just can’t even measure up to. And we’re gonna get into a lot of that.

But I wanna also just quickly give you a chance to talk about what is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities? I feel like D.C. is full of acronyms and full of lots of organizations, and it’s always good to sort of give a little bit of context and texture to what are the different players and the different points in the ecosystem that are really important. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a really important, in my opinion, anchor institution within the broader set of organizations that work on issues that matter to low-income people. Talk a little bit about what is the Center.

ROMIG: Yeah. So, our focus really is on low-income people and on the programs that are really important to helping them make ends meet. So, it really started out with nutrition programs like SNAP, well, now known as SNAP, then known as food stamps, and school lunch programs like, well, I mean, Wendell was there to work on what had become TANF, on health care coverage, Medicaid, and later the ACA, things like that, so programs that are really important to low-income people. And of course, Social Security is very much one of those, as is SSI. And that’s what I work on.

VALLAS: So, that’s exactly where we’re gonna go next. And we’re gonna, I hope, cover a lot of terrain that also comes back to a lot of the personal themes that you just put on the table and some others as well. But the week that this conversation is gonna be going to air—spoiler, we’re talking a little bit in advance—but the week that this conversation is going to air is actually Social Security’s 88th anniversary. And by that I mean it’s the 88th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act. And as I mentioned, and as we’ve already started to get into a little bit, much of your work over the years has really focused on Social Security. And so, before we talk too much more about kind of present day, I feel like we should do a little bit of the history.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: And you’re one of the people who knows more about the history of this program than most people would probably even like to know. So, tell us what was the picture before Social Security was signed into law in 1935 as part of the New Deal?

ROMIG: Yeah. So, it was born out of the Great Depression in a time of extraordinary economic hardship and in a time where four in ten older Americans were in poverty. And it has really transformed what it’s like to get older. It’s really transformed. And then later, what happens to people economically when they become disabled, and that’s really important, too. And I think…. And not only that, I mean, I think when we think about how it’s not just that people were living in poverty, but how they dealt with that, that has really changed. Like, for example, poor houses don’t exist anymore, but did then. That when people were too old to work, they either moved in with their adult children, if they had children who could take them in, or if they weren’t able to support themselves, moved into a literal poor house. And the same thing was true for people, for children who lost a parent. And in fact, my own paternal grandfather, when he was a child, his dad died. He was born around the turn of the century before Social Security. And when his dad died, his mother couldn’t support him and sent him to be raised in an orphanage. And so, those were the kinds of horrible choices that people faced when they couldn’t support themselves. And now we have Social Security that allows people the dignity of being able to live independently in their communities as they get older, when they unfortunately lose a parent, or when they become disabled. And it’s not just about money, but it’s about dignity and independence.

VALLAS: One of the little anecdotes that I think further underscores some of what you were just saying—and this is on a slightly lighter note, but I feel like it actually helps contextualize some of that passage of time—Nancy Altman, who’s a mutual colleague of both of ours, she runs something called the Strengthen Social Security Coalition and an organization called Social Security Works. She often, when she’s trying to help people understand how different things are now than how it was before Social Security—‘cause we often take it for granted, and we’re like, “Oh, yeah! Social Security”—she actually will tell the story that the game Monopoly, which everyone’s probably familiar with—which is a very old game, has been around for quite some time, more than a century—before the New Deal, before Social Security was signed into law, that there was a square on that board, which was the poorhouse. And what that square became after the New Deal and after Social Security was absorbed and adopted was free parking.

BOTH: [laugh]

VALLAS: Right? So, that’s a little bit of the shift, right, that we’re talking about here. Just on a slightly lighter note. But Kathleen, kind of staying with setting the table a little bit on Social Security here, cutting to present day, who does Social Security help, and what would things look like without it? And I feel like the flip side of that coin is also like, what would happen if we saw cuts, like further raising the retirement age? A conversation that is very actively still being debated in Congress.

ROMIG: Well, what I would say to people is Social Security helps everybody. You might not feel that right now, but almost every worker in this country is insured by Social Security in the event of their premature death or disability. I mean, we don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. But I know because of Social Security, for example, that if I died, then my children would receive a Social Security survivor’s benefit based on my earnings. And I know that if I became disabled and was unable to work, then I’m covered for Social Security in that event as well. So, that’s an aspect of Social Security people don’t often think about, but that protection is very valuable, and that knowledge that Social Security is there for you, even during your working years, for you and your family, even during your working years, is really important and benefits everybody.

And then, of course, almost everybody receives a Social Security retirement benefit when they get older. And those benefits are just unbelievably important, that without them, almost four in ten seniors would live in poverty. I mean, that’s just staggering: four in ten. So, the fact that we even conceptualize retirement as sort of golden years and of people being able to live independently and with dignity, that’s because of Social Security. And so, that’s really important. We think of Social Security as sort of a middle-class program, but Social Security in many ways created the middle class that we enjoy now. Without that, we would be dealing with stuff like poor houses and orphanages and things like that. When we run into bad luck, we never know what’s gonna happen. We’re all gonna have our own spells of bad luck, and it’s something that we all pool our resources together to protect each other when we face that.

VALLAS: I love that that’s also where you just took that point, right? Because where I was also gonna go next with that is obviously Social Security is a social insurance program.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: So, I feel like it’s always helpful to remind that we’re talking about insurance. We’re talking about an insurance system that people pay into, that’s protection that frankly isn’t affordable on the private market. And that’s really the point. That’s why social insurance programs are something that government is able to provide. It’s because it’s a market failure. It’s a market gap. And Social Security is such a great example of that.

But continuing on just in laying the foundation here. Just as we talk about Social Security, before we get to talking about who is Kathleen Romig, I also just wanna bring in another component that doesn’t get talked about a lot, which is the disability piece of Social Security.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: And that’s been a really big focus of your work over the years. It’s a big part of why you and I have done so much work together over the years. When did we end up with disability insurance becoming part of that Social Security system, and who’s helped by that piece today? Talk a little bit about that DI piece.

ROMIG: Yeah. So, that was a later edition to Social Security in the 1950s. And it’s very much part of Social Security, which not everyone understands that it’s based on all the same rules, that you earn it based on your work history, your benefits are based on your earnings, all the same stuff as Social Security retirement benefits. And so, the people who benefit from Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, typically are people who have very substantial work histories. That’s how they earned that coverage and those benefits. Often, they acquire their disabilities later in life, typically in their 50s or even in their 60s, and then they get this benefit to replace the wages that they lost because they’re not able to earn very much at all because of their disabilities. And then I would be remiss not to mention that we also have a program, SSI, founded in the 1970s that is designed to supplement Social Security for people who don’t have that work history, who weren’t able to get, who either get a very low Social Security benefit or no Social Security benefit and perhaps were born with a disability or acquired a disability at a younger age.

VALLAS: And SSI just celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, right?

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: So, another hugely important program. Also, obviously, we’re talking about programs that in many ways need to be strengthened, that are not adequate, even though they do do so much good in terms of cutting poverty. And we’ve had whole episodes that you’ve been part of where we’ve talked about SSI, even if that’s not the main focus of what we’re talking about today. So, I really appreciate you bringing that in ‘cause I also think about Supplemental Security Income as being part of that Social Security system, even if it is a slightly different component based on how it’s funded and who it’s for.

So, just to switch gears a little bit here, Kathleen, with some of that as kind of your day job and what you do to help educate people about the importance of this program and why no, we can’t afford cuts. We only need to strengthen it. That’s the direction that we need to be headed. It’s just it’s so palpable that so much of the debate around Social Security in this country is it’s just really technocratic.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: It’s like it’s formulas, it’s eligibility criteria, it’s budget figures, it’s budget projections, it’s oh, insolvency dates, it’s all these kinds of things. And it really frustrates me personally because the way I see it, public policy is supposed to be about people. And people really kind of get lost in the mix of all that technocratic stuff. And so, a big part of why I’ve been really excited to have this conversation with you for the podcast, and part of what you and I were talking about off the air about what we wanted to do, is to talk about what it actually looks like and why it’s so important to combine your head and your heart in this work. And that might be a somewhat unusual conversation to have given that I’m a think tank person, you’re a think tank person, and aren’t we just supposed to be using our heads? Isn’t that what you do at think tanks? In fact, that’s what we get taught, right? Is only to use our heads. But that’s what always takes us to that really technocratic place versus the centering of the humanity of the people who are impacted by the policy decisions that get debated. So, I know this is something that you have been thinking a lot about and that you’ve been reflecting a lot on, and that we wanted to really give some space in this conversation to really explore. And so, as we start to go down that road of this conversation, I wanna give you the chance to talk a little bit about your path to combining your head and your heart in this work.

ROMIG: Yeah. Well, like I said at the beginning, what attracted me to this work to begin with was really more the heart side of things. But I thought kind of the way to do it is through your head, like through the numbers and the research and the facts and statistics. And so, in the early part of my career, I worked at the Social Security Administration research op, which is, of course, like just the facts kind of thing. And we were working with big data, census data and administrative data and feeding it into an amazing model and figuring out how different changes to Social Security would affect people. And of course, I cared very much about, especially about how any changes would affect people in poverty and widows and children and other groups that especially need Social Security. But I was still really thinking of them in that sort of I guess spreadsheet-y way, you know, like some lines on the spreadsheet were really important to me. But it’s still in that big aggregate way.

And then I later started working at the Congressional Research Service. And that was so interesting to me because a lot of what we did there was help members of Congress and their staff respond to the questions that they were getting from constituents and the problems that their constituents were facing. And so, I got a lot more of people’s individual stories, kind of where the rubber meets the road on some of these policies. And you can write something that you think is fair or you think incentivizes this or that or you think it’s clear, and it often doesn’t turn out that way for people. That they face a lot of barriers to accessing the thing that you think you’re providing them, or it’s not clear, and it feels really unfair. Or they run into all kinds of problems. And so, that started to help me think about things differently, about how it’s not just what you write in the law that’s important, but how it’s implemented and what happens when people are really trying to access it.
So, and then shifting, once I shifted to work at the Center on Budget about eight years ago, around the same time, my own child was diagnosed with a disability. And so, having to navigate the education system and the healthcare system as the parent of a child with a disability also really changed things. I mean, these systems are not built with people with disabilities and their families in mind. In fact, just the opposite. They’re built to require failure, to require heartbreak, frankly, in order to access the supports that people need to get by. And it’s just, that has to really change the way and really inform the way that I look at my work now.

VALLAS: And I know that that’s deeply personal for you and the way that you put that, that the systems require failure, right? I mean, it can be heartbreaking, it can be wheel-spinning, but it can also be really catastrophic for families, right? I mean, I tell these stories sometimes on this podcast. I got my education in everything you’re describing as a legal aid lawyer, who was the advocate for people who were facing those massive systems failures. And the dominant paradigm that I got an education in, something you and I often talk about—we were just talking about this in a meeting earlier this week—is something that political scientists usually call “bureaucratic disentitlement,” right?

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: The idea that bureaucracy actually gets weaponized to create red tape that people aren’t gonna make their way through and therefore keep people away from qualifying for the program and receiving the benefits that they’re actually eligible for because somehow that’s seen as better than everyone who’s eligible being reached? And so, that’s where I actually wanna take this conversation next, because I feel like it’s such a good, it’s very related to, and it’s such a good segue from talking about the why it’s so important to have heart and head in the work. Because as you were saying, that technocratic place is what often takes us to the systems that don’t have people in mind.

So, one of the things that you said when we were starting to plan this conversation, and I wrote these words down because they were really powerful to me is, quote, “Benefits are worthless if you can’t access them, and people have to go through horrible things to get what they need.” I will never forget the first time I had a client of mine in legal aid die waiting for his benefits. He was 35 years old, and he was living in a horrible set of circumstances that could have been prevented if he hadn’t been denied for disability benefits three times before he got to me even though anyone to meet him knew he was eligible for a variety of reasons. So, talk a little bit about, I’ve started to take us there, but talk a little bit about how bureaucratic disentitlement shows up in our Social Security system. And you started to go there as well, but your own experience struggling to access supports that your own family and that your own disabled child needs, talk about how that maybe has informed the new approach that you bring to thinking about these systems and how they fail disabled people in particular.

ROMIG: Yeah, and I think in Social Security, it’s especially true in the disability programs in SSDI and SSI. That they’re really difficult to access. So, say you become disabled, and you go to apply for benefits. Again, the Social Security Disability Insurance benefit is an earned benefit. You’re entitled to this benefit. You have worked your whole life, and the law says you’re entitled to this certain amount if you become disabled and are unable to support yourself through work. Well, you show up to Social Security Administration to apply. And just to get an answer, just an initial answer, now it takes over seven months. So, there you are. You can’t support yourself through work. You wait seven months just to get a yes or a no. And in three out of four cases the answer is no.

And then you have to go through a lengthy appeals process to even get in front of a judge. Like that first, you don’t even interact with a human being in that first round. You just submit it online, or you submit it in your local field office, and you don’t even talk to a person about your case until you appeal. And the appeals process can drag on for years. It typically drags on for at least another year after that, but it can drag on for multiple years. And there are several levels. And some people have their decisions reversed on appeal, some people understandably completely give up even if they do meet the qualifications, and then other people will continue to be denied. And so, that’s really difficult. And what happens to people during those seven months or during that year or two when they’re waiting for a decision? Well, people lose their homes. People divorce because of the stress. People, like you said, they die. Their conditions worsen. They lose, they don’t have health insurance coverage. They can’t get what they need to treat their conditions. I mean, just heartbreaking. It’s terrible. And again, this is something to which people are entitled, and it’s just not fair.

And it is similar to my, or I guess it’s like it has some similar themes, I guess, with some of our disability civil rights laws, like the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s a civil rights law. It guarantees every child in this nation a free, appropriate public education. But it’s just a right that exists on paper, and getting that right in real life is really hard. And I know when my son was diagnosed, I brought the paperwork to school. And I said, “Okay! Let’s get him some services,” you know? And they said, “Oh, no, no, no! That’s not how it works. First, he has to really be failing.” And I was like, “What do you mean, really be failing?” He was in kindergarten. Like, he needs to fail kindergarten? And they said, “No, no, no. He has to be at least two levels below grade level.” I was like, “Again, he’s in kindergarten. What does that even mean?” [laughing] Like, are there two grade levels below kindergarten? Or be acting out so dramatically that he’s not able to be in a mainstream classroom.

And I was like, “Well, maybe could we try to make his experience not end in failure? Could we at least try to give him the supports he needs so that he doesn’t fall that far behind or doesn’t struggle that much in school every day?” And you know what? The answer is no. You have to wait until the point of failure to even begin to have the supports, to even get the meeting with the team. And that is heartbreaking, knowing that you’re setting your own child up for failure in order to get the support that he needs. And that’s, frankly, like a lot of the same principles that are really in place with our disability benefits system, that you really have to fail. You have to fail repeatedly before you can even get these benefits that you are theoretically legally entitled to receive.

VALLAS: Yeah, “theoretical” being the word, right? And I often refer to it that way: They’re theoretical rights. They’re theoretical benefits, right? That is what they are until they materialize for folks.

Kathleen, I feel like you’ve started to answer this question, but I wanna put it to you in case there’s anything else that you wanna add. How do you feel that combining heart and head in your work in the way that your own family experience, your time working with folks across the system on a personal level, how has that combination of heart and head, as opposed to just the head and keeping out the heart, which is what we get so conditioned to think we’re supposed to do, how has that made you a better policy advocate?

ROMIG: I think…I think a lot more about, I guess, kind of smaller victories that we can achieve. It’s not always like landmark legislation, but also, making a form easier for people to understand; making sure that when they call Social Security, someone picks up the phone in a reasonable amount of time; thinking about the million different things that we can do to make these systems not just accessible to people, but really hospitable and welcoming to people. And famously, there’s so much gridlock in Capitol Hill, more now than ever before, but we don’t actually have to wait for that to be repaired to really make a difference in people’s lives. We can do that now. We have the tools now. We know a lot now about how to do that, and we can do it. So, I think in some ways it’s helpful to understand that, that the only measure of success is not a huge piece of once-in-a-generation legislation, but a million little choices along the way for how do we really make these systems work for people.

VALLAS: Yeah, I love that. And a form is such a great example, right? That might seem like something really small, but when it comes to whether somebody is able to actually access these otherwise theoretical benefits, as we’ve been talking about, whether a form is accessible, whether a form is something that people can understand use and engage with, that’s the difference between whether somebody gets denied three times or whether they actually are able to access the benefits. And we’ve said it many times on this podcast, but I feel like it always bears repeating: You shouldn’t need to have a law degree to get disability benefits!

ROMIG: Exactly. No, and that’s how I often felt walking into IEP meetings. I have a master’s degree, I do disability policy for a living, and sometimes the language that they would use or the paperwork that I would receive, it was totally opaque to me. And I wasn’t, it shouldn’t be that hard to just ensure that your child gets the support that he or she needs. And it shouldn’t be that inhospitable to walk into a meeting and think, I don’t actually know what anybody is talking about here.

VALLAS: And it doesn’t have to be that way, right?


VALLAS: And that’s the thing, right? We get to make these choices as the—and by we, I mean we as the American people, right—but policymakers at every level of government, folks within the Social Security Administration, people get to make these choices. It isn’t that we have a system that has to be the way that it is. And yes, it can start with something as basic sounding as a form and making sure that it’s accessible.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: I was in a meeting with you earlier this week where we were literally spending an hour with other people who also work on these issues, talking about forms!!! And it might sound really boring. It might be like, wow, that’s the least sexy topic anyone’s ever brought onto a podcast! But this stuff’s really important, right? That’s what we’re talking about when we say—

ROMIG: And if you’ve been on the other side of filling out these forms, you know how important it is. You know how frustrating it can be and confusing and overwhelming and just honestly humiliating sometimes.

VALLAS: I’m not gonna name her because she, I think, doesn’t wanna be named in the telling of this story. But there is a person who let’s just say is a former leader at Social Security, at the Social Security Administration, and she tells a very compelling story about herself when she retired, getting a notice in the mail about her own benefits. And she was with a bunch of us at a disability event a few years ago and said, “I didn’t understand what I got in the mail!”

ROMIG: [laughs] Sure!

VALLAS: This was a person who was, by all intents and purposes, running the Social Security Administration and did not understand the notice that she got, right? So, I think that kind of makes the point.


VALLAS: So, Kathleen, on the flip side of what we’ve been talking about, of the combining head and heart in the work, obviously, there are challenges that come with bringing your heart and allowing your heart into the work. How do you manage the pain and the very real challenges that can come with being as heart connected as I know that you are to this work, particularly when a lot of it is…it’s thinking about and being very aware and very focused on people who are in a position of, in a lot of cases, very real suffering?

ROMIG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I would say I’m a sensitive person. That’s what led me to get involved in this work and what makes me care so much, but it also means sometimes it is so painful! We often lose, [nervous chuckle] and we understand it’s not like a sports game or something where it’s just losing or winning is just a matter of fun, you know? But it’s real people who we’re really working hard to try to make their lives better. And when we fail at doing that, it really hurts. And that is hard for me. And I think about for a long time I really, or I mean, I guess still now [laughs], I feel frustrated that I have been doing this work for over 20 years, and I really care about making Social Security better. But the fact is we haven’t had any major legislation on Social Security since I was five years old. So, sometimes I think I’ve been working on this for so long, and I can’t point to anything and say that’s what I did to make people’s lives better, which is why I’m doing this. And so, I sometimes get discouraged.

But I do really try to focus on the little victories that we have along the way. I try to stop and say let’s raise a glass and toast this one successful event or this improved form. And to stop in meetings and say, “Let’s just take a pause and recognize how,” like we’ve been talking about this lately at our meetings, how the press coverage of disability programs has dramatically changed over the last ten years. And that’s in large part to advocates who are really shaping the conversation. It’s in large part to really outstanding journalists with disabilities being represented in newsrooms, and so that the coverage looks different now. And that’s a big deal. We were fighting a whole different battle ten years ago because we were just inundated with these disgusting tropes and stereotypes. And we’ve really shaped the narrative. So, I think that is really helpful to kind of just recognize these really important, but more kind of intangible, I guess, steps in our path to really creating a better system.

VALLAS: I also just wanna add, because I feel like it’s also worth celebrating, and this also reminds me of, I think, actually how we met. So, this is gonna give away how long we’ve known each other! But you mentioned that you got to the Center on Budget in 2015. That was also the year when we almost saw huge cuts to disability insurance because there were conservatives in Congress who were basically holding the program hostage and saying, “Oh, look. There’s this routine rebalancing that needs to happen across the trust funds.” I’m not gonna go there. I already went to forms. I can’t make this any more wonky than we already have! But I’ll just suffice to say they lost, and the people who care about protecting this system won. And that was not how that was necessarily gonna go, if not for immense work by you and the Center and all of our friends. And I was part of that. That’s one of the things that brought me into Washington was that fight, right, and leaving legal aid. So, just to say also, I feel like sometimes the wins are actually about protecting the gains that we’ve made.

ROMIG: Yeah, mmhmm.

VALLAS: And boy, is this a political moment where we are being reminded nearly daily of how much we can see the pendulum swing backwards on things that we thought were enduring and durable, just not least of which being Roe, for just one example.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: So, just to say I feel like there are wins that are sometimes about protecting the ground that we already have.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: And you were a huge part of that really important win in a way that maybe a lot of people don’t know that happened. But sometimes no news is actually really good news—

ROMIG: That’s true!

VALLAS: —when it comes to something like Social Security.

So, I’m gonna switch gears a little bit, and I’m gonna take the rest of our conversation into a place that I’ve been very excited about, which is I think I’m gonna learn a lot about you that I may or may not already know, getting to ask you some questions that are more about you and more about sort of you as one of the people I consider to be a superhero in this work. So, starting there, if you accept my premise that you are a superhero—and I understand you are a very humble person, but I believe that you are, and I believe everyone I have on this podcast is—what are your superpowers?

ROMIG: Hmm. I guess I do think heart is one of them. It can hurt sometimes going out there heart first. But I do think that’s what kind of keeps me going, is I really, really care. If I didn’t care so much, then I wouldn’t keep rolling with it and keep trying even when it gets hard. I think that’s one of them. I think another one is just having like an amazing superhero universe, I guess, of amazing women, especially, but women and men. You are absolutely at the top of that list that are my sisters in this fight. And some amazing mentors, like I mentioned Wendell, and Paul Van de Water, my colleague, and he’s been helping, and Henry Aaron and other people like that who are kind of looking out for me and always teaching me things. But I think, yeah, having that amazing team that we all work together, I could not do it by myself. I couldn’t stay motivated. I couldn’t see all the things that I see, like our amazing legal aid colleagues that we work with. I mean, they just show me a whole different side of things that I would never be able to understand without constantly collaborating with them. So, I think that’s part of it, is just having this whole universe of people that work together. Yeah.

VALLAS: Then I think I’m gonna hype you up a little bit more and say I actually think one of your superpowers is collaboration. You are such an amazing collaborator, but you’re somebody who you’re never in it— I’m just sharing my own two cents now. I thought I was gonna be asking you questions, but I feel like I need to say this to you, right? You are so amazing at not having it be about you, right? You’re not in it to say it’s The Kathleen Show, right? And that’s so many people in this work unfortunately, not the people in our little tribe you were just describing, right? But you’re always saying, “How can we do this collectively? How can we work together? Who can we pull together?” And I feel like that’s actually one of your amazing superpowers. And that meeting I mentioned earlier this week, talking about forms, right, I won’t go back into that in depth, but it was just such a great example of just you putting some people on an email is actually, it’s magic, right? Because it means all of a sudden you have now six or seven different organizations all working together and saying this is our shared goal and what can we do? It’s more powerful than if any of us acted alone. So, I consider that to be one of your superpowers as well, if I may. If I may.


VALLAS: So, next question I’m gonna ask you, and I’m real excited for this answer ‘cause we’ve been asking this to all Off-Kilter guests this season. And our amazing producer, Kings Floyd is actually putting together a playlist of all the answers. What is your hype-up walk-up song, whatever you wanna call it? What gets you going? What’s your song that gets you in that place?

ROMIG: I do love listening to like, I have a whole playlist that I made for myself called Hype that has like 100 songs on it [laughs] that I love listening to in the morning. My favorite artist right now is I love Lizzo so much. And in fact, I went with one of our amazing sisters in this work, Tracey Gronniger and I went and saw Lizzo last year, and that was such a fun highlight of the year. And in fact, I love her song Special so much that I quoted it in my Christmas card, which my kids said was very cringe. But people loved it, okay? People loved it. People were really responding to that. And I just adore Lizzo, and that song always makes me feel really good, even when I am feeling really discouraged. So, yes, that would be mine.

VALLAS: I love that answer. I love Lizzo too. Lizzo is just like literally a humanitarian, in my opinion, given how many people’s lives Lizzo has improved at this point in one way or another, just by turning on her music.

ROMIG: And she’s also a native Detroiter.

VALLAS: Oh, look at that! So, you share that with her, too.

ROMIG: I did watch the Lizzo documentary over on HBO Max, [laughing] when it came out!

VALLAS: I will take that recommendation for August when things slow down a little bit. That sounds amazing.

ROMIG: I recommend that.

VALLAS: All right. All right. Also, just for the record, I guarantee you everything we do at this point is cringe to your kids because we are old now, and we don’t know how to be cool, so.

ROMIG: No, I think being cringe is the most wonderful gift of getting older. [laughs] I embrace my cringe.

VALLAS: I need you to talk to my husband because I also make my husband cringe. I don’t even make people’s kids cringe. I make my husband cringe because I think I used the word “stan” the other day.

ROMIG: [laughs]

VALLAS: And he’s like, “You’re not allowed to use that. You’re too old!”

ROMIG: I get that a lot. “You’re not allowed to vibe. You’re too old.” [laughs]

VALLAS: I’m always like, “What?!”

ROMIG: I’m like, “I don’t care. I’m old enough to say whatever I wanna say.” [chuckles]

VALLAS: “I’m using this.” I used it in the astrology newsletter that I put out every couple weeks, and I was like, stan. “I stan Venus retrograde.” And he’s like, “You’re not allowed to use that word.”

BOTH: [laugh]

VALLAS: So, all right. I’m not for everyone. My husband does love me, I promise. So, next question I was gonna ask you gets us into some territory, which is some of my favorite stuff to talk about with these days, and it was the subject of an entire season that we did on Off-Kilter. And that was we explored for the better part of this year, up until recently, the words, the famous words that Audre Lorde is often known for, “self-care is political warfare.” And so, one of the things I committed to doing is even though we’re not doing a full self-care episode right now, because we did that for a season, and we’ve kind of moved into broader conversations on broader topics, I did commit to keeping self-care as a permanent fixture in every conversation that I have with folks. And so, I’m gonna take us there and ask, how does self-care show up for you? How do you take care of yourself so that you can be in this work for the long haul? And in particular, how do you balance the incredible work that you lead with being there for your family and for your kids and living a full life that’s not just dominated by your work?

ROMIG: Yeah. So, I do, like, I try, I get up early every morning, and I try to really start with things that are just for me. Like, I drink my coffee is number one, obviously, and I have a beautiful view of Rock Creek Park from my apartment. And I like to just look out over Rock Creek Park and drink my coffee and do my Wordle. And I always pray in the morning, and I always write down what I’m grateful for. And I try to write down my little victories—we’ve been talking about that a lot—just write down my little victories of each day. And I try to always just make enough time for just doing stuff that’s fun, like listening to my fun playlist or my audiobook, or I love to go to the movie theater. I just saw Barbie, and I just loved that movie so much! Or go out to dinner with my girlfriends, you know, just things like that that are just for fun. So, I do try to make enough time for that. And then stuff like yoga and working out and stuff, just walking, try to keep active. That always helps just like ground me and calm me down when things are feeling overwhelming.

VALLAS: I love that. I also have to confess I haven’t seen the Barbie movie yet.

ROMIG: Oh! I love it!

VALLAS: I know. And I’m like it’s because, yeah, I mean, it’s because of many things, but I’m really excited for it. And my sister started sending me random songs from the soundtrack.

ROMIG: The soundtrack is so good!

VALLAS: She’s like, “This is what you’re missing!” I’m like, “I know, I know.” I’m just really bad at seeing movies when they’re new.

ROMIG: Yeah.

VALLAS: I’m always the person who sees the movie after everyone forgot it came out. So, I’ll get to it. I will get to it. But the soundtrack, I was like, oh, this is what I need in my life!

ROMIG: That’s what I’m listening to right now. I love the soundtrack.

VALLAS: Amazing, amazing. So, Kathleen, something that I ask of guests sometimes in these conversations—and I’m gonna turn this question to you ‘cause I’m curious where you wanna take this—but we’ve had a lot of conversations on this show at different points, and especially last fall when we actually did a whole season about this, but we often look at limiting beliefs, and in particular collective limiting beliefs.

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: And sometimes people think about this and it’s like, oh yeah, what are the limiting beliefs in my life as an individual? Well, we also have limiting beliefs as a collective that constrain what we or our policymakers believe is possible, right? And so, one example being, “Oh, poverty is inevitable,” right?

ROMIG: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: Or “poor people just don’t wanna work.” So, I’m curious if you have any nominations of what you consider to be the most toxic limiting beliefs that we as a collective need to identify and get in the business of releasing and letting go of so that we can actually build an economy and a society that allows all people in this country to thrive. Do you have any nominations you wanna add to that list?

ROMIG: Yeah. I guess just like paid work being the be-all and end-all. That there are so many things that people can contribute that aren’t necessarily paid work. And I mean, first and foremost, what comes to my mind is unpaid caregiving, which of course women in this country really disproportionally provide. It is so valuable! Just because we don’t pay women to do that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have incredible value to the people who are receiving the care and to our economy too. But it’s often overlooked and undervalued by all of our systems. And it’s not only that, but I mean, I think this is especially important for folks with disabilities, too, that if you qualify for a Social Security disability benefit, you do so by proving that you’re not able to earn above a certain amount because of your disability. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to contribute. It just means that we don’t necessarily, we aren’t necessarily gonna pay you very much for it, or anything at all. And so, I think that’s something that is really important to me that I think everyone has a lot to contribute and that we should not measure that in terms of dollars.

VALLAS: I love that answer. We did a whole two-part episode on Your Work Is Not Your Worth because I could not agree more with you. And honestly, we could probably have that be the subject of the show every single week, and we still wouldn’t say it enough times. So, I love that as what you brought in and just what a great, I think, companion to so much of the conversation we’ve been having about why is social insurance so important, right? Like, what does it enable? It enables that basic human dignity, irrespective of whether a person is currently working, right? And that was what the landscape was before Social Security was, like you said, it was either you’re working, or you’re in the poorhouse, right? So, I love that as the answer you brought in, given the social insurance conversation we were having before.

Another question that I ask of guests pretty regularly on the show, and I’m curious where you wanna take this as well, is, there were some words that a mentor of mine shared with me not that long ago that really, really stuck in my head as really, I think, being one of the messages that is most important for this moment that many of us as advocates and really all of us as people are living through, which is a global paradigm shift and everything that that comes with. And those words were that living in this time in human history is either an affliction or an assignment. And so, I’m curious, what advice do you have for advocates and really anyone in this moment who’s fighting for a cause who are looking to accept that assignment? And in particular, do you have any advice for newer advocates, many of whom listen to this show, who are maybe just starting out and are trying to figure out how to find their place in the work?

ROMIG: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I think…. Yeah, I mean, it can be hard, like we’ve talked about. And I think it can be hard…. Like, a lot of these battles, I mean, we’re the underdogs in these fights, you know. And we don’t always win, like we’ve talked about. And that’s really hard. And I think, I guess thinking about, I mean, speaking of underdogs, one of my kind of extracurricular, I guess, activities that I’ve done is I’ve been super involved with Moms Demand Action, the gun violence prevention group, which is so, I mean, they just do such amazing work. But it’s, I mean, it is a real uphill battle to fight gun violence in this country. And Shannon Watts, speaking of badass women, Shannon Watts, who founded the organization, one of her mottos is, “Just keep going.” And that, I try to remind myself of that. Just like, it does get hard, but just keep going. And that it’s all of the efforts of so many people across sometimes a really long time, then that’s how we get to change. But we’ll never get there unless we just keep going, keep going, keep going.

VALLAS: I love that, and ah, whoo. I’m actually getting chills as you’re saying that. I want you to know how much I appreciate you, because all the nice things you were saying about me and other people in this work who are part of that sort of sister tribe of women who work on Social Security and disability issues, I feel so much the same about you. And I honestly just don’t know how I would do this work if not for your friendship and the companionship, really, the camaraderie. So, I just have so much love for you as well and just wanna say that.
I feel like we’ve started to get there, but I actually wanna give you the chance to answer this question more fully ‘cause you were really starting to go there. But let me just also say it in these terms. What inspires you when the work gets hard? And how have you dealt with challenges and setbacks at different points? Do you have any advice given that this is a very difficult moment for a lot of folks working on these issues, even though we have a lot of Democrats in power? And not to make it totally partisan, right, but that being not everything we need in terms of being able to actually achieve the goals that we’re all trying to achieve.

ROMIG: Yeah. No, I do think about this a lot. Yeah. And I guess sometimes I just blurt it out. You know, I’ll just say to someone like, what’s…sometimes I just wonder what’s the point? Or I always, I feel like the inverse of that song: “All I do is win, win, win.” Sometimes I feel like all I do is lose, lose, lose, you know. So, I’ll just blurt something like that out to somebody. And it’s amazing the kinds of things that people will say, the encouraging thing. I think you just have to give people an opportunity, that people will be really encouraging and really empathetic and have some kind of perspective on it or wisdom on it that you don’t expect. And so, I think sometimes you just have to be open with people and let them know what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling and so that they can give you that reassurance or that empathy or whatever it is that you might need in that moment. So, I think that’s really important, just being honest.

VALLAS: I love that answer. So, I feel like in the last several minutes that we have, I wanna sort of give us a chance to talk about kind of what comes next. What does the future hold? I don’t personally have my crystal ball in this room, so I can’t look into a crystal ball today. If I were to be in a different office, maybe I could. And you don’t have yours in front of you either. But as we look ahead, what is the road ahead for Social Security? We talked a lot about kind of where it’s been. We’re saying happy birthday, Social Security this week as this episode is going to air. But what is the road ahead? And what do you feel like folks need to know and hear? So many people, I mean, it breaks my heart talking to interns sometimes. People are like, “So, but really, is Social Security gonna be there? We know the talking point is that it’s gonna be there, don’t worry. But really, is it gonna be there?” What do folks need to know about what the road ahead is for Social Security and how folks can get involved if they’ve been inspired by what you’ve been sharing and are saying, oh, actually this is an issue that I need to get engaged with?

ROMIG: Yeah. Well, I mean, we were talking about how there hasn’t been major legislation on Social Security for 40 years. Well, there is going to be major legislation on Social Security in the next ten years. We know that because the system does face a real but manageable long-term financing gap that will come to a head about ten years from now. And so, we’re gonna have to do something. It’s gonna change somehow. And it’s gonna, either we’re gonna pay more into the system, or we’re gonna get less out of the system. And hopefully when we do it, we also transform the system and make it work better for people and make it more generous, I hope more generous for people who really need it. And so, those are really, really big questions. Social Security is the biggest federal program. Social Security affects every person in this nation, every worker, every person who’s covered by it, which includes kids, and, of course, many millions of beneficiaries. So, it’s super important, so I would definitely encourage people to just kind of familiarize themselves with it. Honestly, this is like such a nerd piece of advice. But the American Academy of Actuaries came up with this game called the Social Security Challenge I think that is super fun! I mean, it’s fun! And my 12-year-old did it with me. He enjoyed it, too. It’s very accessible. I think that’s a great way. Just doing something like that is kind of fun—I mean, it depends what you think of as fun—but kind of fun way to familiarize yourself with what the facts are and what’s at stake.

And yeah, it’s gonna be really big. And I guess I would say to people who are getting in, you know, starting their careers, this would be a great time to get involved in Social Security policy, to learn about it. Because we are, it’s gonna be one of the biggest political and policy fights of our lives, and it’s coming up in ten years. [laughing] I’ve been waiting for 20 years to have any kind of change of it! But you get in now, and you could be there when we’re really fighting this huge fight that’s gonna be so consequential for everyone in this country.

VALLAS: I love that answer! And all nerds, very welcome, because you and I are nerds, and a lot of people who listen to this show have to be nerds, right? Here we are talking about forms and bureaucratic disentitlement and whatnot. So, I will definitely, we’ll include a link in our show notes to that game so that folks who are going, “That’s sounds like my idea of fun!”

ROMIG: [laughs]

VALLAS: Well then, this game is for you! So, you too can have the kind of fun Kathleen and I have. I sometimes joke that my husband, who I mentioned I often make cringe when I’m trying to be what I think is relevant and cool, and failing, he is the one who’s much better at parties because he is in the wine business. And so, he can talk to you about like Cabernet Sauvignon. If you take me to a party, I’m probably gonna talk to you about SSI’s asset limits.

ROMIG: [laughs] Exactly!

VALLAS: Right?! So, this game is my idea of fun! That is true. So, Kathleen, what is next in your work? Do you have anything exciting coming up that you want to plug? Do you have anything on deck that you wanna alert folks to? Or just generally, what’s coming up that you’re excited about?

ROMIG: Yeah. Well, I mean, we have been talking about access to things, and I think that’s something that we can tackle right now, in the absence of legislative action we can tackle right now. And it’s something that the Biden administration is looking at more seriously than I’ve ever seen anyone look at questions of administrative burden, reducing administrative burdens, and increasing access and equity. And I think that’s super exciting. There’s a lot that can be done. I’m really excited to work on it with you, with other people. And I think people are really starting to understand what a big issue this is, not just in the administration, but in the press and elsewhere, in academia that people are really starting to understand the importance of that. And so, I’m super excited to be part of that work, and it’s something that we can make tangible gains on no matter what’s happening on Capitol Hill. So, yeah, that’s definitely one thing.

And just thinking about what can, you know, there is a lot of gridlock, but what can we do on a bipartisan basis right now? And one of those, I mean, you mentioned offhand, but the asset limits for SSI. I mean, don’t we all agree that people should be able to work and save and marry? And yet, what does our program, SSI, that serves low-income people with disabilities and elderly people, what do we tell them? We say you can’t save, you can’t marry, you can’t work. I mean, that’s just really messed up. And I think there’s bipartisan enthusiasm for fixing some of that and starting with allowing people to save more than a pittance. And I think that’s really exciting to have that kind of bipartisan support, and we’re gonna just keep plugging away on that until we win.

VALLAS: We are. And I feel like it’s appropriate that I’m wearing my unicorn earrings as we have this conversation because it’s something people have said is not possible to get done. People have given up on trying to update SSI because it hasn’t been updated for even inflation, right, in the asset limit, for example, in, well, actually since the year I was born, 1984, since we’re outing our ages when certain key legislation happened, right?!

ROMIG: [laughs]

VALLAS: So, but it is, it’s only not possible if we stop trying, right?

ROMIG: Yeah.

VALLAS: And that’s why we are the advocates who refuse to go away. And you have to build the momentum. So, I know none of that would be happening if not for you. And you’ve been one of my favorite people to be in this work with for years and years. But that issue is one of my favorites to work on with you. So, Kathleen, this has been so much fun for me! I am so grateful to you for the time. I’m so grateful to you for the work. And please say hi to Adam for me.

ROMIG: Yes, I will!

VALLAS: You have a kid that I love deeply. And I don’t love most kids, but I love your kid!
Kathleen Romig is director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. You can find more about her work and more about the Center and all the issues we’ve been talking about in show notes. [theme music returns] Kathleen, thank you, thank you.

ROMIG: Thank you.

VALLAS: And I’m giving you the biggest hug on Zoom.

ROMIG: Yeah!

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.