Questions The Media Should Ask About The Next Social Security Trustees Report

The Social Security trustees are expected to release an annual report on the health of the Social Security system on Thursday, and it’s almost certain that the report will be accompanied by a tsunami of stories and commentary about how Social Security is bankrupting the country and how benefits need to be cut.

Certain, but not inevitable — if the media ask a few simple questions before they write their stories.

Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson—two leading experts on Social Security—have a post up on Nieman Watchdog that is a handy guide for avoiding the right-wing spin on the Social Security Trustees report and presenting an honest picture of the state of our Social Security system. The truth is, they write, that far from careening toward bankruptcy—an “impossibility, given how the program is financed,” they note—”Social Security is the most fiscally responsible part of the [federal] budget,” and the projections the trustees make allow lawmakers plenty of time to make policy adjustments that don’t require retirees to work longer or accept lower benefits.

Here’s a summary of the key questions they suggest for media covering the story (and the rest of us who are following the story):

  • Does this year’s report affirm last year’s finding that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of over $2.6 trillion, which will grow to over $4 trillion by the 2020s, enabling the government to pay all benefits in full and on time for the next quarter of a century?
  • How does the current condition of Social Security compare to the conditions that existed in 1983, the last time significant changes were made to Social Security benefits and taxes? (The answer, according to last year’s report, is there’s no comparison. In the 1980s, Social Security was indeed facing an imminent crisis, in which it was about to run out of funds to pay benefits. Bipartisan legislation signed by President Reagan has proven to be a durable long-term solution to that crisis; we would even feel compelled to have a conversation about Social Security were it not for the failure of conservative economic policy to maintain the level of middle-class income growth in the past two decades that had existed before the 1980s crisis.)
  • If the numbers in the trustees report confirm that today’s younger workers will get at least 75 percent of the benefits retirees get today even if policymakers today do nothing, why are conservative lawmakers continuing to reinforce the perception that those workers won’t get anything at all without Draconian measures taken against tomorrow’s retirees?
  • If there is no immediate crisis, why is President Obama’s deficit commission acting as if there is one? (Could it be … politics? “[i]t seems that some political elites want to do something deeply unpopular, yet avoid political accountability,” Altman and Kingson write.)
  • Is it accurate to say that Social Security is, for the first time, taking in less in payroll tax contributions than it is paying out in benefits? (In a word, yes, but that’s not the same as saying Social Security is running a deficit. The trust fund gets revenues from other sources, and if those sources of revenue are counted, the trust fund revenues exceeded expenses by $138.4 billion in 2009, according to last year’s trustees report.)
  • Why are we not focusing on the fact that, as Social Security celebrates its 75th anniversary this week, it has been one of the nation’s most successful, and fiscally responsible, programs, responsible for sustaining the well-being of millions of people and reflecting one of our country’s most deeply held values?


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