Conservative think tanks and publications have been verybusy pumping out propaganda designed to undermine Social Security. Of course, the conservative movement has been working to weaken or eliminate the program since the 1980s, and its messaging seeps quite seamlessly into the mainstream media narrative about Social Security. A recent opinion piece in Slate magazine is the latest example of anti-Social Security propaganda from the political right. The unsubtly titled piece, Social Security Doesn’t Make Sense Anymore, is technically co-authored by Eric Boehm and Celeste Headlee, but it is mainly a transcript of an interview with Boehm on Headlee’s Slate podcast. Boehm is a reporter for the conservative magazine, Reason, who has praised Argentina’s new MAGA-like president, Javier Milei, as a champion of ‘smaller government.’
The Slate article is so rife with misleading statements that it’s hard to know where to begin correcting it. L.A. Times’ columnist Michael Hiltzik counted at least 30 such statements. We can’t even begin to rebut all of them in one Equal Time blog post. But we will correct some of the worst zingers (below), in hopes that by removing enough cards from the unstable house that the Slate authors built, the whole thing will rightfully come tumbling down.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “Social Security is a transfer of wealth from people who are young and working and productive, because it’s funded with payroll taxes.” – Slate
Social Security is not a federal transfer program. Transfer programs are funded by general tax revenue and tend to be one-way transactions, usually from wealthier to poorer groups (e.g., Medicaid, food stamps). Social Security payroll taxes are a dedicated income stream that can only be used for payment of Social Security benefits. Workers paying into Social Security are earning the right to collect benefits later — when they retire or become disabled.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “Retirees are generally wealthier than the people who are funding their retirements through Social Security. So… we need a radical rethink of the program.” – Slate
While some retirees are well-off (Older billionaires like Warren Buffet skew the average), forty percent of seniors depend on Social Security for all their income. Ten percent of American seniors already live in poverty. Without Social Security, half of retirees would fall beneath the poverty line. Younger workers pay into the system in return for collecting benefits when they retire. This intergenerational compact has worked for nearly ninety years and there is no need to ‘radically rethink’ it now.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “I’d love to reframe this debate away from the idea that those of us who are proposing reforms are somehow breaking a promise that was made to retirees.” – Slate
Of course Social Security is a promise — from the federal government to American workers, dating back to the enactment of the program in 1935. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged that Social Security would “give some measure of protection to the average citizen and family against poverty-ridden old age.” This is why, nearly 90 years later, President Biden referred to Social Security as a “sacred trust.” The fundamental promise is that when workers pay into the system, they are eligible for retirement benefits later.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “That promise has been upended by decades of greater prosperity for Americans.” – Slate
While it’s true that fewer seniors are living in poverty than in 1935 – at the height of the Great Depression – prosperity is not equitably shared in 21st century America. Income inequality has mushroomed in the past 40 years. As Bloomberg reported, “middle class financial security has eroded in past decades.” In fact, as of 2021, the top 1% of U.S. earners now hold more wealth than all of the middle class. This includes millions of middle class seniors, Warren Buffett notwithstanding. Seniors need Social Security just as much as they did in 1935 — if not more.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “(Social Security is) going to hit a brick wall in the 2030s.” – Slate
The Social Security Trustees project that the program’s trust fund will become depleted in 2034, without corrective action from Congress. Even if the trust fund does run dry, Social Security still could pay some 80% of benefits. So the program will not “hit a brick wall” and suddenly stop. That would only happen if we had 100% unemployment and no one was contributing payroll taxes. Congress can solve the trust fund shortfall largely by adjusting the payroll wage cap so that the wealthy begin paying their fair share into Social Security.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “We have to borrow more money to pay Social Security benefits.” – Slate
First of all, Social Security is not legally allowed to borrow money. In fact, it provides the federal government with money because the trust fund is held in special Treasury notes. As we said above, the projected shortfall in the trust fund could be addressed by ensuring that high earners are contributing their fair share. Forty years ago, some 90% of eligible income was subject to Social Security payroll taxes. Thanks to rising income inequality (the rich getting richer while the rest tread water), today only about 80% of all eligible income goes toward Social Security payroll contributions, depriving the system of much-needed revenue. It’s time to correct that.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “There’s not enough money to go around. So who gets paid first? Do we pay wealthy retirees first? Or do we pay needy working-class families and single moms with kids first?If you’re gonna pay wealthy seniors first, it means everything else has to go.” – Slate
First of all, Social Security benefits are progressive. Lower income retires receive proportionally higher benefits than wealthier ones do. Furthermore, eliminating Social Security benefits for higher earners wouldn’t significantly improve Social Security’s finances. Congress would have to slash benefits for the middle class, too, in order to have any impact on the bottom line.
In reality, if conservatives truly are concerned about “needy working-class families and single moms with kids,” they might want to rethink their crusade to slash federal safety net programs for those very people, including Medicaid, food stamps, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to name a few. But then conservatives might have to let go out of those deficit-swelling Trump tax cuts that benefitted the wealthy and big corporations — along with corporate welfare and unchecked military spending. Blaming Social Security for the lack of spending on other segments of society is a huge red herring.
MISLEADING STATEMENT: “Life expectancy is more than 15 years higher now than when Social Security began.” – Slate
According to L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, Boehm’s life expectancy figures are misleading. Life expectancy in 1935 was about 63 years, but that figure was skewed by a high infant mortality rate at the time, when many children did not live beyond one year of age. “For Americans who made it to their first birthday back then, average life expectancy was nearly 66,” writes Hiltzik. “For those entering their working careers, say at age 20 — it was nearly 69.” With this analysis, Hiltzik takes the air of out Boehm’s argument that people were never intended to collect Social Security into their late 60s because they supposedly weren’t living that long.