While it’s true that these days the GOP relationship with truth and reality has become strained to the point of non-existence, their lies about Social Security stand out as both particularly egregious and especially cruel. Moreover, much of the time, the worst of these lies are simply allowed to stand, relatively unchallenged. Yes, attempts to debunk them exist, but much of the public discourse either treats the claims as fact or allows them to stand as reasonable arguments.
In this post, I hope to debunk some of the worst of the assertions. Few people read my blog, so I don’t expect to have any particular impact on public discourse. But at least I’ll have a post which I can reference in future discussions.
First, there are no major structural deficiencies in Social Security that form an impending crisis. If you examine most of the discussions, you’ll find an often unchallenged assumption that Social Security has major problems. That happens in several interesting ways.
One common tactic involves the use of the broad term “entitlements” to lump Social Security, Medicare, and remaining social welfare programs like Medicaid, SNAP, free/reduced school lunches, WIC, and TANF together into a single large pool. When politicians speak generally about “entitlement reform” they are engaged in a form of newspeak deliberately intended to make their constituents believe they are talking about cuts to welfare programs for the “undeserving” rather than Social Security and Medicare.
Of course, that particular deception only carries them so far, as George W. Bush discovered when he tried to attack Social Security directly. Most Americans, including most GOP constituents, understandably responded with outrage. Interestingly, the GOP learned that lesson and proceeded to abuse it in 2010 with their coordinated and well-funded attacks against the ACA. (Anyone who confuses the Tea Party with a “grass-roots” movement is, frankly, either dishonest or an idiot. It was a well-funded and coordinated nativist movement playing off fears and prejudices that ended up spinning out of control and attacking its host.) That’s why we saw people earnestly waving protest signs that said patently absurd things like, “Keep the government out of my Medicare!”
And that’s the grain of truth embedded in the term “entitlement”. The overwhelming majority of Americans now view Social Security and Medicare as something they’ve somehow “earned” and thus do not consider them “government programs”, but rather something to which they are “entitled”. And in a sense I agree with that broad attitude, but not because any single individual has somehow “earned” their benefits. Rather, Social Security represents a form of “pay as you go” social insurance. Collectively, we all contribute throughout our working prime to support those who are past that prime, surviving spouses and minor children of those who die during those prime years, and those who through disability are fully or partially unable to work. And we then reasonably expect our society to provide us those same benefits when we or our loved ones require them.
Lumping all those things together and then claiming that “entitlement” growth is out of control represents a deliberate effort to make people think a given pundit or politician is talking about whichever group the hearer considers the “undeserving” in order to set up a pivot toward dismantling Social Security. So far, at least, those efforts have been unsuccessful. That does not mean they won’t be successful in the future. The reality, of course, is that the only program growing at unsustainable rates has been Medicare. The ACA appears to have had some impact on that growth rate, but it was never designed to fix our entire health care system, so its impact will likely be limited. The problems in Medicare actually reflect the broader problems in our overall health care system. Out of all the components that make up that system, Medicare is actually the most efficient. It’s certainly not the cause of the problem and while it can impact it to some degree, Medicare can’t by itself fix the system within which it operates. But that’s a topic for another day.
More recently, proponents for dismantling Social Security have been asserting that there are major structural deficiencies in Social Security and we need to make major cuts in benefits before the whole thing collapses. They might blame changing demographics while pointing to assumptions made back in the early decades of Social Security to support their wild claims. There is, of course, one major problem with all their hand-waving and bellicose grandiosity.
We already reformed Social Security to correct its structural defects in the 1980s. Sadly, many Americans seem completely unaware not only of historical events, but even those events that have happened in their own lifetime. By the 80s, the children being born were in the generation that would come to be known as the Millenials. There was no demographic surprise about the small size of Generation X relative to the Baby Boomers. The entire reform effort was a pretty big deal involving lots of analysis and input from all sectors in a truly bipartisan effort. (This was back well before the GOP went completely off the rails.) And it was successful.
In fact, there is only one structural problem that has arisen since that reform. And that problem is directly related to the extreme explosion of inequality, in itself also a direct result of government policy, in our country. One of the decisions made at the time was to cap overall earned income subject to the Social Security tax at 90% of all earned income. While the cap was indexed to inflation, nobody anticipated that income at the top would grow from 11% then to roughly 25% of all annual earned income today. That concentration of income has reduced the overall percentage of income subject to the social security tax from 90% to 83% and falling. While that’s not sustainable over the course of decades, the fix is simple. The cap must be adjusted so at least 90% of all income is subject to the tax again.
Personally, I believe the cap should be eliminated altogether. After all, we don’t cap the Medicare portion of the tax. But a compromise that would compensate for the years we’ve collected less than 90% while ensuring that at least 90% of all annual earned income is subject to the tax moving forward would fix the only structural problem that has developed in Social Security since the last major reform. It’s worth noting that this problem could also be addressed by reducing the concentration of earned income at the top. So addressing our current extreme inequality would also “fix” Social Security.
While the current insane version of the GOP is obviously incapable of accomplishing even something that straightforward, it’s also not a crisis. Yes, we’ll need to fix it at some point over the next forty to fifty years and the longer we wait, the more expensive the fix will be. But it’s a problem we will still be able to fix at almost any point along the way. That’s what makes the frantic hand-waving so absurd. Think about it. The basic claim is that if we don’t do anything to fix Social Security, in four decades we might have to cut benefits. And their solution to that “crisis” is to cut benefits now.
As an aside, I can’t help but compare that reaction to the GOP take on an actual looming crisis with climate change. While the consequences of climate change will take decades to unfold, unlike Social Security it really does require action today. We spent decades reaching this point and even if we acted aggressively right now, it’s likely too late to repair much of the damage we’ve done. The longer we wait, the worse the consequences will be. Yet the GOP is in almost complete denial about that actual looming crisis in favor of ones with no basis in reality.
And that takes us to one of the most commonly promoted ideas for cutting benefits — raising the retirement age. I believe Jeb Bush most recently floated that proposal, but it’s widespread throughout the GOP and even among some so-called “serious” Democrats. But this proposal is actually deeply cruel. It’s simply not physically possible for many people to work much longer than they already do. Our bodies get old. They get weaker. And we become more prone to illness and injury. Nothing about that fundamental reality has changed.
While that’s most clearly true in physically demanding blue collar jobs, the impact is actually much broader. My oldest daughter is an intensive care nurse, one of the professional service occupations (though perhaps one not as widely respected as it should be). The job requires significant and ongoing education and skill. However it is also a physically demanding job. And even in the jobs, such as mine, that rely almost entirely on intellectual capability, we have no guarantees. Alzheimer’s is only considered “early onset” when it strikes before age 65. And that’s only one of myriad ways our ability to perform can be impaired by age.
Underlying these proposals to increase the retirement age is the idea that people are living significantly longer now than they did fifty years ago. That’s simply untrue and represents, at best, a naive understanding of life expectancy. At worst, it represents a prime example of what Mark Twain meant about lying with statistics. Dr. Aaron Carroll does an excellent job unpacking these statistics in his Healthcare Triage episode on life expectancy. He also includes other links on the topic. If you’re interested in the topic, check out his full post. But the video is included below.
We have greatly improved the average life expectancy at birth, but primarily by reducing infant and child mortality. The average life expectancy at age 65 has improved overall, but not by all that much. Moreover, the improvements are not evenly distributed across all groups and it’s actually fallen in some groups. Therefore, claims that we need to increase the retirement age because people now live longer are simply untrue. The only real question is whether or not the people repeating those claims are ignorant, misinformed, or lying — not to imply that those categories are mutually exclusive.
In closing, I’ll note that we actually have one of the lowest levels of effective social insurance in the industrialized world. Rather than trying to cut or limit Social Security, we should actually be working to expand and improve it. It has proven to be remarkably effective and efficient and is certainly one of the reasons the latest financial crisis did not spiral into another Great Depression. (Benefits like SNAP and unemployment insurance also mitigated the impacts of the financial crash.) It’s time to end the lies.