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.

The Social Security Trust fund has a $3+ trillion surplus and even after 2034 will be able to pay 79% of benefits if Congress takes no action

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?

MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle hosts misleading segment on Social Security, 4/12/19

Gary Cohn, Heidi Heitkamp, and Stephanie Ruhle during misleading Social Security segment

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.