Memo to Kevin Drum

Mediocre stories about Social Security are not okay

Dear Kevin:

I have not written to you before, but I do know your work from the health reform debate. Since your comments about my recent CJR post have made it to the thousands who devour words on The Huffington Post, it’s fitting I respond to your piece. In the post in question, I criticized both the gloom and doom headlines and the mediocre stories that followed the release of the Social Security Trustees report last week.

For those new to this topic, the trustees projected that, largely because of changed economic conditions, Social Security would be able to pay full benefits only for 21 years, and 75 percent of the benefits after that assuming no changes were made. It’s very unlikely we will reach that point. Always in the past Congress has made the necessary fixes. In speaking to the press, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue cautioned reporters that the Social Security program was far from broke and even though it was not acceptable to pay out only 75 percent of benefits, “it’s still a fact that there will still be sufficient assets there.” Most media outlets, however, did not heed his warning, and chose drama over caution. That’s standard operating procedure for some of the press, as we both know.

Headlines like the one from—“Social Security Fund to Run Out in 2035”— reinforce what the media have been telling the public, particularly those who are younger: that Social Security won’t be there for them. That message, as I reported two weeks ago, has a way of weakening support for what is a system of social insurance that has had up until recently enjoyed widespread support among all age groups. And that inaccurate drumbeat has ramifications. A story appearing this week in the trade publication Investment News reported that “many financial advisers are taking steps to de-emphasize the program’s place in clients’ retirement income plans.” In other words, financial gurus are, as the story says, “acclimating investors to the prospect of receiving small benefits, no cost-of-living adjustments, and, in some cases, no Social Security benefits at all.” So misleading headlines do matter.

We agree the media must do a better job discussing possible solutions to Social Security’s dilemma. Press stories have mentioned, pretty much in passing and without much explanation, the ones that seem to be the agreed-upon fixes that would inject more revenue into the system. Those are: means testing benefits that would turn Social Security into a welfare program; raising the age for collecting full benefits, to 69 or 70; and changing the Cost of Living Adjustment formula, which would pinch seniors financially if they live a long time. Occasionally stories do mention the idea of raising the cap on payroll tax contributions—the amount of wages subject to the tax, but that’s not really on the table since it’s unpopular with the anti-tax crowd.

Your discussion of how easy it would be to come up with a package of fixes, if only Republicans would compromise, falls into the trap of the approved narrative for Social Security. It’s an expedient political frame that has so far excluded a discussion of how any of these changes will affect ordinary people now and in the future. What the media have not done, as I have pointed, is discuss how the various proposals affect real people—you know, like the older woman who moved in and out of the work force and doesn’t have a very big benefit, or the laborer whose back injury requires that he retire at 62, or the thirty-something worker who will have no employer-provided pension and very little in a 401(k) plan.

In fact, two summers ago I journeyed to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, interviewed nine members of the community, and wrote a series of posts called “Social Security in the Heartland” that showed how potential fixes for the system would affect them. Campaign Desk urged the media to do the same in their communities. The press didn’t appear interested and left us scratching our heads, given how easily and cheaply it can do this story. Enterprising reporters could do some great work, here, the kind of reporting that raises knotty questions about the “hard choices” the pols tell us must be made.

The question is hard choices for whom—richer people who don’t want to pay higher payroll taxes, older women who would struggle if COLA is reduced, those for whom Social Security will be the only source of retirement income. The press does need to explore all this.

The media’s frame has been so narrow that it hasn’t included even a passing discussion of suggestions for making the present better for seniors now and in the future—like a new tier of retirement savings of the kind that experts like Alicia Munnell say could produce another 20 percent of pre-retirement income for families. You yourself made a passing reference to “stingy” Social Security benefits. That discussion should also include an acknowledgment that the current 401(k) arrangement doesn’t work very well, as our colleague Joe Nocera over at The New York Times noted last week.

I appreciate Richard Eskow’s defense of my reporting, and I agree the press did blow the point about an aging population causing Social Security’s shortfall. The retirement of the Baby Boomers, the aging of the population, and the change in the ratio of workers to beneficiaries is no surprise to Social Security actuaries and was fully taken into account in 1983 when Social Security was running out of money and had to be fixed. So press stories like Scarlet Fu’s on Bloomberg TV—“Social Security is a train wreck just waiting to happen”— are off the charts misleading.

As this debate moves along this year and next, I look forward to more back and forth among all of us in the best spirit of journalism and the Internet.

All Best,


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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,