The Rocky Road to Taking It Easy

Pete Marovich/Corbis
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Washington, D.C., 2013

Social Security may well be the most popular social program in America. It is without question one of the nation’s two or three most significant of the past century, the great accomplishment of the New Deal. Some 52 percent of all married couples sixty-five and older today receive half or more of their income from Social Security. Three quarters of unmarried retired people do. Social Security has been a major factor in the reduction of poverty among the elderly from 35 percent in the 1950s to about 9 percent today. It pays benefits to disabled workers, widows, and children of deceased workers. Moreover, those payments are mostly progressive; higher-income recipients receive more in absolute dollars but less as a proportion of their preretirement income than do lower-income recipients.

Fifty-nine million workers received $863 billion in benefits last year, somewhat less than a quarter of all federal spending, but in an early 2014 survey by CBS News, 73 percent of Americans thought the benefits paid by Social Security were worth the costs. Some three out of five in a 2013 survey undertaken at the time the congressional “sequestration” was being put in place to cut government spending believed that Social Security benefits should not be reduced. Social Security did not lose its popularity even when government spending became a major headline issue in the late 1980s and 1990s. A 1996 survey found overwhelming support.

This popularity may explain why it has seemed easy to frighten the general public about Social Security’s demise with an alarmist campaign by conservative think tanks and policymakers but also by some Democrats that has been underway since the 1990s and early 2000s, and continues today.

Reporters and policymakers routinely say that Social Security is going broke or is bankrupt. Some right-wing economists and policymakers repeatedly warn that the system has unfunded liabilities of tens of trillions of dollars. A more subtle tactic, often taken up by Democrats, is to claim persistently that Social Security must be “saved.” The Democratic economist Alice Rivlin did so in a Brookings Institution report, even while assailing those who exaggerate the problem. In just the first week of the new Congress, the Republican House voted not to use modest funds from Social Security taxes to replenish the Social Security disability fund—the separate fund to help disabled people of all ages—which it has done eleven times in the past. It said it feared weakening the future of payments to retired people. Now, there will be a showdown about disability payments in 2016 when its own fund runs out.

Since there will be far fewer workers to support retirees as baby boomers retire in ever-greater numbers in coming years, rhetoric about the frailty of Social Security may seem appropriate. But Social Security is simply not going broke or bankrupt. These claims, writes the business…

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