In yet another example of mainstream journalists (perhaps unwittingly) echoing conservative talking points, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle helped perpetuate a false narrative about Social Security on her April 12, 2019 MSNBC broadcast. During a segment entitled, “Saving Social Security could lie in the hands of college students,” Ruhle interviewed Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp and former Council of Economic Advisors chair Gary Cohn about a contest for college kids to come up with solutions for Social Security’s future. (Heitkamp and Cohn are the contest “judges.”)
From the very beginning, the segment was couched in a false sense of alarm – with a serious lack of context. Ruhle gravely summarized the Social Security Trustees’ analysis that the system will run out of reserves in 2034 (but only if Congress were to do NOTHING to address the shortfall in advance), accompanied by an on-screen banner reading SOCIAL SECURITY IN PERIL.
This framing started off a largely fact-free segment on a disingenuous note that colored the rest of the commentary: Social Security is in trouble. But college kids can come up with a bipartisan solution to save the day!
Here are some of the lowlights from the segment, and the realities that render them either wrong or ridiculous:
Ruhle: For the first time in Social Security’s history, costs exceeded income in 2018. This is a big deal. And as more people retire, the program seems to be at even greater risk.
Reality: Ruhle neglected to mention that there is a Social Security trust fund with $3 trillion in assets which provides the system a fiscal cushion. Even if Congress takes no action to address the projected depletion of the trust fund in 2034, Social Security still would be able to pay 79% of benefits. Social Security itself is not “at risk,” because workers will continue to pay into the system.
Ruhle: Politicians don’t want to talk about Social Security.
Reality: Politicians in both parties talk about Social Security all the time. Republicans want to cut benefits to pay for the Trump/GOP tax cuts. Democrats are proposing common sense legislation to boost benefits and keep the system solvent for the rest of the century. Ruhle may want to check out Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act and Bernie Sanders’ Social Security Expansion Act. Congressman Larson just chaired his fourth public hearing on Social Security’s future since January. Politicians were definitely talking in that hearing room. Was Ruhle listening?
Ruhle: None of the Democratic candidates have a solution to Social Security.
Reality: Most of the Democratic candidates running or likely to run for President in 2020 have already come out in favor of Social Security expansion, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke. In fact, Harris, Booker, and Gillibrand are cosponsors of Sanders’ bill.
Here’s Elizabeth Warren re-iterating the position of most Democrats on Capitol Hill – from Progressive to moderate:
“Social Security is a lifeline for seniors and Americans with disabilities. We won’t let it be cut by one cent — and instead we will fight to expand it… If this government really works for the people, it should protect and expand Social Security.”
Ruhle: We don’t hear Washington talking about a solution.
Reality: See above.
The segment then devolved into a largely bogus discussion of how college students don’t think Social Security is going to be there for them when they retire. Or, as Gary Cohn interpreted it, “They’re going to pay in, but they’re not going to collect.” As our president, Max Richtman, pointed out at one of Rep. Larson’s hearings, the main reason younger Americans may feel that way is the constant flood of “disinformation” from conservative circles. The entire MSNBC segment played into the tactic of “entitlement reformers” to bust the generational contract that has helped keep seniors out of poverty for 83 years.
No doubt, there is a legitimate ongoing debate about Social Security’s future, and there’s no reason college kids – who will some day collect benefits – shouldn’t be part of it. But debate about something as crucial as Americans’ earned benefits must be based on facts and conducted in context. For a network that prides itself on being factual, them’s the Ruhles.
Now that the Democrats have control of the U.S. House, Congress is actually holding hearings (under regular order, no less) on boosting Social Security – a topic the GOP-majority House eschewed. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) chaired a hearing of the House Social Security subcommittee Wednesday that made plain the stakes for current and future seniors – and the fundamental disagreement between the two parties about Social Security’s future.
“What the American want and deserve are solutions. The last time Congress seriously did something about Social Security, Ronald Reagan was President and Tip O’Neill was Speaker. We believe it’s long overdue for us to move forward on this issue.” – Rep. John Larson, 4/10/19
National Committee president Max Richtman joined a panel of witnesses including Diane Stone, director of the Newington, CT senior center from Rep. Larson’s home district; Shaun Castle, a veteran and Deputy Executive Director of Paralyzed Veterans of America; Steven Goss, Chief Actuary of the Social Security program; and Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works.
Witnesses raised real-life examples of seniors living in the grey zone between true “economic security and poverty” who would be better off under Rep. Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act.
Richtman recognized Nettie Hailes, a National Committee volunteer in the audience who turned 91 on the day of the hearing. Hailes, whose husband was a Baptist pastor who helped organize Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, depends on Social Security for her income.
“After raising four children and working in real estate, Nettie claimed Social Security benefits at age 65. In addition to her own Social Security benefits, Nettie began receiving a survivor benefit after husband’s passing. She manages her money wisely to pay for her medical expenses, upkeep on her home and property taxes. She is proud to stay within her means but says it’s tough to try and keep up because the cost-of-living is so high.” – NCPSSM President Max Richtman, 4/10/19
Richtman said that the 2% across-the-board benefit increase in Congressman Larson’ bill, while modest, could make a big difference for seniors like Nettie. A two-percent boost would equal about $300 annually for the average retiree. So would the improved cost-of-living (COLA) formula in Larson’s legislation – the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), to help Nettie and other seniors keep pace with inflation.
“This change in the formula for COLAs would effect millions of beneficiaries. It would allow Social Security benefits to keep up with inflation as it really impacts older people. The current formula is flawed. This legislation corrects that.” – NCPSSM President Max Richtman, 4/10/19
Congressman Larson proposes to pay for enhanced Social Security benefits by adjusting the payroll tax income cap so that earners making more than $400,000 per year would still contribute to Social Security like everyone else – and by raising payroll taxes by 1.2% over 24 years (the equivalent of 50 cents more per week for the average worker).
“It’s an insurance premium, not a tax. That’s why it’s called FICA (Federal Insurance Contribution Act). Is there any other ‘tax’ where you get disability, spousal, and pension benefits?” – Rep. John Larson, 4/10/19
Republicans on the subcommittee voiced general support for Social Security, but rejected any revenue-side solutions to improve benefits or to keep the system solvent. (Without raising additional revenue, the only other solution to Social Security’s projected shortfalls is to cut benefits – which the National Committee and most Democrats roundly reject.)
Democrats reminded Republicans that seniors cannot afford benefit cuts now or in the future, especially with employer-provided pensions disappearing and at least half of Americans not earning enough to save for retirement.
As Richtman pointed out during an exchange with Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), boosting Social Security benefits helps not only seniors – but the entire economy.
REP. KILDEE: Do social security beneficiaries put their earnings away for the future – or do they spend that money?
MAX RICHTMAN: The spend it and the money goes right into back into the economy. There’s a multiplier effect. Every dollar spent produces two dollars in economic stimulus.
REP. KILDEE: So, if we were to increase [benefits], that increase is going to go right back into the American economy and have a stimulus effect.
Social Security’s chief actuary, Steven Goss, affirmed that Congressman Larson’s bill would keep the system on a sound financial footing for at least the next 75 years. “The Social Security 2100 bill is the only one that does that,” he said, explaining that the legislation not only makes up for the shortfall in projected revenue, but includes enough for the modest benefit boost and some “cushion.”
Richtman testified that Larson’s legislation should help “put to rest” the “steady drumbeat of disinformation” from conservatives that Social Security is “going bankrupt” or won’t be around for future generations. “It will show clearly the program is sound and will be there for the rest of the century,” he said.
For more on Wednesday’s hearing and Boosting Social Security, watch our Facebook Live broadcast from Capitol Hill
National Equal Pay Day 2019 reminds us that gender pay equity is crucial not only for social justice, but for women’s retirement security. When women earn less than men (currently, only 80 cents on the dollar), they cannot afford to save sufficient money for retirement – and their Social Security benefits are lower.
In 2016, the average annual Social Security income received by women 65 years and older was $13,891, compared to $17,663 for men. – National Committee Social Security Fact Sheet
Women take more time off work to care for family members, but don’t get credit for it in their Social Security earnings history. On average, women outlive men by five years – forcing them to stretch their retirement dollars over a longer span of time. That’s one reason why 11% of senior women live in poverty – an unacceptable number in the wealthiest country on earth.
Equal Pay Day marks the calendar date when the average woman has earned as much as the average man did the previous year.
“Because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work longer for the same amount of pay. The wage gap is even greater for most women of color.” – National Committee on Pay Equity
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, African-American women make 64 cents on the dollar of what non-Hispanic white men earn. The figure drops to 55 cents on the dollar for Latinas. Not surprisingly, average Social Security benefits for black women are 25% lower than men’s, while Latinas’ are 31% lower.
Though the gender pay gap has closed by 3 percentage points since 2012, America has a long way to go toward wage equality. Among industrialized nations, the country’s pay inequity level consistently ranks in the top five. The wage gap is attributable to various forms of gender discrimination – ranging from biases about women’s performance in the workplace to the fact that men are likely to hold higher-ranking, higher paying positions.
Given that society has made scant headway on this issue in recent years, it’s clear that women need stronger federal protections against wage inequality. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare fully endorses the Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Among other things, it would put an end to pay secrecy, strengthen workers’ ability to challenge discrimination, and bring equal pay law into line with other civil rights laws.
“This landmark legislation aims to prevent wage discrimination from happening in the first place. It will help women and their families now – and in later life when too many women dangle on the precipice of poverty.” – National Committee president and CEO Max Richtman
For more information on pay inequality and women’s retirement security, visit Eleanor’s Hope.
President Trump is at it again. Two years after promising Americans “something terrific” to replace Obamacare – and failing – the administration has renewed calls for its repeal. On Monday, the Department of Justice announced its full support of a federal judge’s decision that would eradicate the entire Affordable Care Act. (The decision is not in force and the case is under appeal). Then, on Tuesday, the president rewarmed his pre-repeal claims that the GOP should be “the party of health care” – catching Republican lawmakers off guard.
“If Trump had told GOP senators of his plans, they say they would have sought to convince him not to throw their party back into a war over health care — the issue Democrats believe was instrumental to their takeover of the House in last year’s midterms.” – The Hill, 3/27/19
Didn’t the White House learn its lesson in 2017 when Republicans tried to ram several ACA repeal bills through Congress, only to fail miserably? The GOP found itself bereft of ideas for actually replacing Obamacare with “something terrific” once they gained control of the White House – after voting more than 60 times to repeal the ACA during the Obama presidency.
Since we haven’t written as much about Obamacare since the GOP repeal effort went down in flames in 2017, let’s recall what’s at stake:
“The ACA touches every part of the health care system — from how Medicare pays doctors to the Medicaid expansion that has covered millions of low income people.” – National Public Radio, 3/26/19.
For older Americans, the Affordable Care Act mitigated the age rating system that allowed insurers to charge them five times as much as younger people. It extended the financial solvency of Medicare and provided for annual wellness visits at no cost to the patient. Obamacare expanded the Medicaid program so that more Americans – including ‘near seniors’ aged 50-64 – were covered.
After the Republicans’ ‘repeal and replace’ efforts failed, the Trump administration committed itself to undermining the Affordable Care Act in myriad other ways, including withholding subsidies, purposely under-promoting the annual open enrollment period, and campaigning for the Trump/GOP tax scheme, which zeroed out the penalty for not obtaining coverage. It was that last act of sabotage upon which the federal judge in Texas ruled that the entire law should be overturned.
United against President Trump’s efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act, Congressional Democrats have pledged to strengthen it through new legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled a bill on Tuesday to “lower health insurance premiums, strengthen protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, and ban the sale of what Democrats call junk insurance,” reports the New York Times.
But with the GOP in control of the Senate and Obamacare’s most virulent opponent sitting in the White House, the Affordable Care Act that helps so many millions of America obtain health coverage will remain under constant threat.
For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. House has begun holding hearings on the issue of expanding Social Security. On Wednesday, the newly-minted chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, Rep. John Larson (D-CT), convened a hearing entitled, “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Benefit Enhancements.” The purpose, said Larson, is to “shine a bright light on all of the proposals to secure Social Security that will help the American people.”
Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, was the lead-off witness.
“Since the program’s creation 84 years ago, Social Security has been – and is – an enormously successful program which is essential to the retirement security of the vast majority of Americans. While (the) benefits are modest, Social Security is still the single largest source of income for retired Americans. To ensure the program’s continued success, it is vitally important that long-term solvency be restored, and that Social Security benefits be improved to meet the needs of all Americans.” – Max Richtman, testimony before the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, 3/13/19
Richtman re-iterated the National Committee’s support for Congressman Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act, which restores the program’s long-term solvency and boosts benefits.
Advocates from other organizations joined Richtman at the witness table, including Bette Marafino, president of the Connecticut Alliance of Retired Americans (from Larson’s home state). Marafino related poignant stories of Connecticut residents who would fall into poverty without Social Security. She recalled how her own grandmother was “glad to receive my grandfather’s Social Security check, because it literally kept her out of the poor house.”
“The traditional three-legged stool of pension, personal savings, and social security is deteriorating. The ‘pension’ leg of stool has been disappearing, eroding retirement security and making Social Security even more important. Along with the high cost of prescription drugs putting pressure on seniors’ finances, (these factors make) the need to increase Social Security benefits urgent.” – Betty Marafino, president, Connecticut Alliance of Retired Americans, 3/13/19
Abigail Zapote, Director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement, told the subcommittee that boosting benefits is crucial to the Latino population, whose average Social Security checks are lower than other Americans’.
Joan Entmacher, Senior fellow at the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), testified that Social Security expansion would help address the inherent disadvantages that women face in retirement. She pointed out that the average retirement benefit for women is only 80% of men’s, making women even more reliant on Social Security.
Entmacher advocated the creation of caregiver credits for people (the majority of whom are women) who take time off of work to care for family members, so that their future retirement benefits are boosted. Congressman Larson’s bill does not include caregiver credits, but legislation to be re-introduced this year by Rep. Nita Lowey (R-NY) would provide more than $20,000 in annual credits to full-time family caregivers, which the National Committee also supports.
Republicans on the subcommittee, now in the minority for the first time in 8 years, appeared less combative than in the past.
“This was a richer dialogue about the philosophical differences about Social Security than we’ve had in a long time,” observed National Committee legislative director, Dan Adcock. “There was a quest to figure out what each side could live with.”
On the other hand, Republicans seemed to reject any benefit enhancements paid for by new revenues. (The Larson bill would adjust the payroll tax cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share, and raises the payroll tax by a modest 1.2% over more than 20 years.)
“The Republicans say they love the program, but they don’t want to pay for it. Instead, they would address Social Security’s solvency through large benefit cuts.” – Dan Adcock, NCPSSM Director of Government Relations and Policy
In fact, subcommittee Republicans harkened back to legislation offered by former chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) which would have cut Social Security benefits by a whopping 30%. Congressman Drew Ferguson (R-GA) asked Max Richtman what part of the Johnson bill the National Committee could support.
“Nothing,” replied Richtman.