Ask Mary Jane, NCPSSM Contributor: Mary Jane Yarrington, Senior Policy Analyst

“Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme” …No it’s not.

Anyone who tells you Social Security is a Ponzi scheme either doesn't understand what a Ponzi scheme is or their mother’s didn’t teach them not to fib. This myth is a favorite of conservatives who just hate the idea of social insurance in general. The Social Security Administration has a good history describing why this is nonsense. But here’s my take on this myth.

A Ponzi scheme is that e-mail you receive inviting you to send a fancy guest towel to the top three names on a list and instructing you to cross off the first name, add your name and send the same e-mail to three others. Whoever starts the list likely will receive the towels, but ultimately, there is no one left to continue the chain. The final entrants won’t receive anything. The original Ponzi played the game with dollars but the principle is the same. He borrowed money from his first investors and paid them back with money obtained from subsequent investors. He quickly ran out of sufficient investors to keep his scheme going.

Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system with the contributions of today’s workers going to today’s retirees or into the reserve to pay benefits to future retirees. The ratio of workers to retirees has changed over time, but unless this nation allows the system to be abolished, there will never be a time of no workers paying into the system. The most recent report of the Social Security Board of Trustees forecasts that even with no changes in the system, reserves will last through 2041 and even after that, 75% of promised benefits could be paid with incoming payroll taxes.

And don’t give any credence to the nonsensical comparison that in 1940 there were 40 workers to each retiree and today it is only three to one. Of course, there were fewer beneficiaries. 1940 was the first year a benefit was paid so millions of then-retired workers didn’t have the opportunity to contribute payroll taxes and earn benefits. Many of those ineligible for benefits in 1940 then relied on public assistance or their children to survive their retirement years. Hardly the “good old days” those who hate Social Security should be so eager for us to return to.

Do you have questions about Social Security? If so, feel free to drop me an email at Ask Mary Jane.