A 5th District congressional race that began with a testy debate about Social Security is ending with a testy debate about Social Security.

A lot is at stake politically for first-term incumbent Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty and her Republican opponent, Litchfield real estate developer Mark Greenberg. About 130,000 people in the 5th District receive Social Security benefits, more than half of the total ballots cast in the last mid-term election. Thousands more are close to retirement age, and they vote.

That’s why Esty went on TV early with ads attacking Greenberg’s position on Social Security, why Greenberg so loudly disputed that message as “false,” and why he’s turning the tables in the final days of the campaign with his own Social Security attack message that Esty’s camp says is false.

A glossy Greenberg flier hit mailboxes this week implying that Esty had voted to “raid the Social Security trust fund,” something that happened before her time in Congress and which her campaign calls misleading.

The front of the flier has a large picture of Greenberg and his father, Jerry, who also starred in a TV ad defending Greenberg against Esty’s attacks against him on Social Security.

Greenberg has angrily objected to a series of TV ads aired by Esty and groups working on her behalf, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC. They paint him as someone who wants to “take benefits away from seniors” and privatize and/or dismantle Social Security as we know it.

The mailing Greenberg put out this week says, “Seniors Can’t Afford Esty: Bad fiscal management puts Social Security and Medicare in jeopardy.”

The debate between the two candidates is over how to keep the Social Security program “solvent” beyond a shortfall that is projected 15 years from now due to the retirement of Baby Boomers.

Greenberg wants to gradually raise the retirement age from 67 to 70, affecting workers who are currently 52 and younger.

Esty opposes that move, and instead favors raising the $117,000 cap on the amount of a person’s income that is subject to the country’s 6.2 percent Social Security tax.

Despite airing his own TV ad blasting Esty for wanting to “raise Social Security taxes,” Greenberg has said over the course of the campaign that he would be willing to support some version of Esty’s plan in conjunction with raising the retirement age.

On Thursday morning at an event at the Meriden Senior Center, Esty received the endorsement of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which presented her with a pair of boxing gloves “to thank her for fighting for seniors.”

Dan Adcock, the organization’s director of government relations and policy, said that the difference between Esty’s and Greenberg’s plans to avoid Social Security insolvency comes down to solutions that benefit the poor vs. the rich.

Extending the retirement age would most affect people in lower-paying jobs that are also more physical and more difficult to keep working until one is 70, he said. Those same people are also far less likely to have personal retirement savings or be working for an employer who offers any kind of retirement program beyond Social Security.

“Why go after the people who can least afford it and also the people who have been beat up the most?” Adcock said.

At the same time, he said, those who are most able to pay into the system now, who most likely to have personal retirement savings to supplement Social Security, and who are in office jobs where it is easier to keep working into old age, are being asked to contribute a far lower percentage of their income to fund the program.

“The Social Security tax is regressive,” Adcock said, citing, for example, a high school principal who earns $117,000 and pays 6.2 percent of his income into Social Security vs. a bonds trader who earns more than a $1 million a year and pays a little over half of 1 percent.

“It should be progressive. It should be that the people who are most able to afford to contribute to the system should,” he said.

Removing the income cap would make Social Security solvent “for 75 years,” without having to touch the retirement age, Adcock claims. Esty does not support removing the income cap entirely, her campaign spokeswoman, Laura Maloney, said Thursday.

“I think (Greenberg) has fallen for the myth that unpopular benefit cuts are the only way to solve Social Security insolvency,” he said. “You don’t have to go through the pain of putting people who are younger through what is essentially an across-the-board benefit cut . . . Why should their benefits be cut? They’ve been paying into the system . . . Especially when you don’t have to do it.”

Bill Evans, Greenberg’s campaign manager, said his candidate has been the one pushing for an urgent discussion about saving Social Security.

“Mark Greenberg’s position on Social Security is very clear: No one 52 years or older would see any change in benefits, retirement age or anything else.  The bottom line is that Mark is open to discussing all options for saving the system. It needs to be a forthright and serious discussion between parties who want to preserve social security, not politicize it,” Evans said. “But Elizabeth Esty is only interested in the issue so far as she can use it to attack Mark by lying to seniors. Esty is being dishonest with voters on this issue as she has been on many others as evidenced by published news stories calling her ads false.”