Opinion and Forefront

HERBERT: Raising false alarms about Social Security

February 12, 2011

Bob HerbertIf there’s a better government program than Social Security, I’d like to know what it is.

It has gone a long way toward eliminating poverty among the elderly. Great numbers of them used to live and die in ghastly, Dickensian conditions of extreme want. Without Social Security today, nearly half of all Americans aged 65 or older would be poor. With it, fewer than 10 percent live in poverty.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us that close to 90 percent of people 65 and older get at least some of their family income from Social Security. For more than half of the elderly, it provides the majority of their income. For many, it is the only income they have.

When you see surveillance videos of some creep mugging an elderly person in an elevator or apartment lobby, the universal reaction is outrage. But when the fat cats and the ideologues want to hack away at the lifeline of Social Security, they are treated somehow as respectable, even enlightened members of the society.

We need a reality check. Attacking Social Security is both cruel and unnecessary. It needs to stop.

The demagogues would have the public believe that Social Security is unsustainable, that it is some kind of giant contributor to the federal budget deficits. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Economic Policy Institute has explained, Social Security “is emphatically not the cause of the federal government’s long-term deficits, since it is prohibited from borrowing and must pay all benefits out of dedicated tax revenues and savings in its trust funds.”

Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t have been clearer about the crucial role of the payroll taxes used to finance Social Security. They gave the beneficiaries a “legal, moral and political right” to collect their benefits, he said. “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”

There has always been feverish opposition on the right to Social Security. What is happening now, in a period of deficit hysteria, is that this crucial retirement program is being dishonestly lumped together with Medicare as an entitlement program that is driving federal deficits. Medicare costs are a serious problem, but that’s because of the nightmarish expansion of health care costs in general.

Beyond Medicare, the major drivers of the deficits are not talked about so much by the fat cats and demagogues because they were either responsible for them, or are reaping gargantuan benefits from them, or both. The country is drowning in a sea of debt because of the obscene Bush tax cuts for the rich, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have never been paid for, and the Great Recession.

With employer provided pensions going the way of the typewriter and pay telephones, the income from Social Security is becoming more precious by the day. “If we didn’t have Social Security, we’d have to invent it right now,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future.

The deficit hawks and the right-wingers can scream all they want, but there is no Social Security crisis. There is a foreseeable problem with the program’s long-term financing, but it can be fixed with changes that do no harm to its elderly beneficiaries.

The alarmist rhetoric should cease. Americans have enough economic problems to worry about without being petrified that their Social Security benefits will be curtailed. The fears about retirement are well placed—most Americans do not have enough to retire on. But there should be no reason to believe that Social Security is in jeopardy.

The folks who want to raise the retirement age and hack away at benefits for ordinary working Americans are inevitably those who have not the least worry about their own retirement. The haves so often get a perverse kick out of bullying the have-nots.•

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Herbert is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.
 

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