Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Election Year Spin on Social Security

Bernie Sanders' campaign for the White House has triggered a firestorm of rants, tweets and accusations about Social Security, thrusting the now seventy year old program to center stage in a forum of election year theatre. Sanders' charges, often wrapped in outright inaccuracies, are carefully aimed at a demographic the candidate knows to be voter-ific: aging Baby Boomers. Most, or at least half, of this generation are wholly unprepared for the expenses of retirement, while the other half is, well, just modestly underfunded. Both will be dependent on Social Security in varying degrees, a program that is suffering a mid-life crisis of its own.

The purpose of this post is not to offer my opinions on Social Security, but rather to simply state the facts, as more officially presented to Congress by the Trustees of the Social Security Administration in their 2015 Annual Summary on the Social Security and Medicare Programs. Both the summary and the full report of the Trustees can be easily accessed on the internet or through the link provided in this post.

Sanders' claim of the "myth of Social Security insolvency" is quickly followed by accusations that Republicans plan to "cut benefits" to retirees. Boy, I tell you, it's enough to get a retirees' blood to boil. Then again, maybe that's the point. But in Sanders' attempts to sway public opinion for his electoral purposes, the blatant misstatement of the facts surrounding Social Security actually does far more harm than good for the program and to the millions that depend upon it. 

In an article from earlier this year in the Des Moines Register, entitled "Social Security; Expand it don’t Cut it", the Senator was quoted, 

"Republicans are trying to convince voters that Social Security is in crisis. Let's not kid ourselves: We do have an urgent problem on our hands, but it's not Social Security. Millions of middle-class Americans are facing a retirement crisis as a result of inadequate income and growing wealth inequality. Social Security isn't the problem. It's an essential part of the solution."

While the Senator is correct about the latter part of his comments, he's dead wrong about the former. Social Security is most definitely in crisis, at least according to the Trustees of the Social Security Administration. Perhaps before moving on, we should spend a moment and define who the Trustees actually are and what their role is in all of this. 

By law, there are six Trustees of the Social Security Administration or Trust Fund. These are, the Secretaries of the Treasury, Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and the Commissioner of Social Security. The two remaining Trustees are public representatives who, along with the aforementioned cabinet members and Commissioner, are all appointed by the President, or in this instance, specifically by President Obama, a Democrat. That being said, it's really not rational to dismiss the comments in the report, or at least not to 
discount them as a Republican ploy.

Here, then, are direct quotes from the 2015 Trustee report to Congress. Decide for yourself if Social Security insolvency is a myth, as Senator Sanders argues:

“Social Security and Medicare together accounted for 42% of total Federal program expenditures in 2014”

“Both Social Security and Medicare will experience cost growth substantially in excess of GDP through the mid-2030s”

“Social Security’s Disability Insurance Trust Fund now faces an urgent threat of reserve depletion by 2016”

“Beyond DI, Social Security as a whole as well as Medicare cannot sustain projected long-run program costs under currently scheduled financing”

“The Trustees project that the Medicare Trust Fund will be depleted in 2030”

“After 2019, Treasury will redeem trust fund asset reserves until depletion of Social Security Trust Fund reserves in 2034”

Seems fairly straightforward to me that there's an urgent problem with not just Social Security, but Disability Insurance and Medicare. Now why would Bernie Sanders be arguing something altogether different?

For more detail on Social Security and the broader retirement crisis in America, please see my new book: Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available on Amazon, iTunes and Barnes and Noble bookstores.