Keep Your Hands Off Our Social Security

According to a recent CNN poll, 60 percent of Americans under 60 and 70 percent of those under 50 believed that Social Security will not be able to pay them a benefit when they retire.

In reality, the likelihood that any living American’s Social Security benefits will not be paid to them when they retire is about the same as the probability that there will be no U.S. government at that time. Is anybody banking on that?

Of course if you are going to take something away from people, the first step is to convince them that it wasn’t really there in the first place. What makes the whole deception even more fascinating is that everyone is using the same assumptions about the future and the same numbers.

The common source for everyone writing and talking about Social Security is the annual Social Security Trustees Report. This shows that the program can pay all promised benefits for the next 27 years, without any changes at all. If nothing is done over the next 27 years, only about 75 percent of scheduled benefits would be payable in 2037; but that would still be more than what retirees receive today, after adjusting for inflation.

So, according to the assumptions and facts that everyone who writes or talks about Social Security is using, there is no basis for the belief that the majority of Americans under 60 hold. Since this deception is not about Afghanistan or some country on the other side of the world, but about a program that nearly a quarter of American adults receive a check from each month, it is all the more amazing. The enemies of Social Security have pulled off one of the greatest public relations scams in U.S. history.

What makes this subterfuge unique is that it is all based on verbal and accounting trickery. For example, it is common to combine Social Security and Medicare spending and say that their costs will become unsustainable. The trick here is that it is Medicare, not Social Security that leads to the explosion in public spending. And perhaps more importantly: it is not the aging population or Medicare itself that is the problem, but the United States’ private sector health care costs. If these were in line with any other high-income country such as Germany or Canada, our long-term budget deficit would turn into a surplus.

Not that Social Security has contributed anything to the budget deficit ? the program is still running a surplus. The granny-bashers try to weasel their away around this too by pretending that the Social Security Trust Fund, currently at more than $2.5 trillion, doesn’t exist. But the Treasury obligations held by the Trust Fund are as real as the U.S. government bonds held by any private mutual or pension fund, or the ten-dollar bill in your wallet.

Of course all this deception would not be possible if the media did its job and reported the basic facts. As when someone says President Obama is a Muslim, they note that he is a Christian. Of course some people will still believe whatever, but we wouldn’t have a majority lost in the fog on this issue.

This huge scam is the most obvious reason to reject any benefit cuts to Social Security, which includes raising the retirement age. This is a very regressive cut that hurts lower-income workers the most, since many have jobs that are too physically demanding to work longer; and since their life expectancy has not increased along with that of higher-income employees.

We need at least a decade just to inform the public of the basic facts, before we can decide how to make the relatively small adjustments that Social Security may need to maintain long-term solvency.

MARK WEISBROT is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This column was originally published by The Sacramento Bee.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).