Michelle Malkin vs. Reality

Copying Betty White

Readers of Investor’s Business Daily were treated to an op-ed recently by columnist Michelle Malkin, who was apparently making a plea for raising Social Security’s retirement age to seventy. Malkin, whose work skews conservative, was once a commentator on Fox News and writes a syndicated column. In her op-ed, she argues for “a 21st century retirement age. If 40 is the new 20 and 50 is the new 30, why shouldn’t 70 be the new 65?”

There may be good reasons for raising the retirement age someday, but Malkin’s op-ed didn’t make the case—and, if anything, perpetuated the lopsided reporting that has gone on for months. Op-ed writers, of course, can argue any side they want, but this piece is a stand-out for contributing to the misinformation, disinformation, and lack of information that has characterized the Social Security discussion so far.

She argues that we’re living longer, working longer, and “in general” are holding jobs that are less physically demanding than workers of earlier generations. Well, yes, there has been an increase in longevity in the U.S., though the stats of other countries are much better than ours. There’s more to the story. Those U.S. gains in longevity are not distributed equally among the population. Much of the gain in life expectancy has accrued to people in the top half of the income scale, and in particular to white men. Malkin assumes that what’s possible for some is possible for all. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows that one in three Americans over age fifty-eight work in a physically demanding job, and that large percentages of people between the ages of fifty-five and sixty experience chronic pain at work.

Malkin talks about the dwindling number of workers to support retirees, an argument that has recently surfaced to bolster the argument for cutting Social Security benefits. Again, there’s more to the story. As Campaign Desk has recently pointed out, no less a figure in Social Security’s history than Robert M. Ball, who knew more about the program than anyone on the planet, warned of Social Security opponents who would use “an accurate statistic to make a highly inaccurate charge.” In letter to me in 2004, Ball wrote: “the demographic changes that have been taking place throughout Social Security’s history were anticipated and understood when the program was being established and have been taken into account in its funding ever since.” Obviously, the ratio of workers to retirees was going to change, Ball wrote, and the designers of Social Security fully anticipated such changes.

Malkin exhorted federal employees and elected officials to “get with the times.” “Americans can no longer feel entitled to some 20 to 30 years of subsidized retirement,” she argued. “Raising the traditional and early retirement ages will mean extending workers’ taxable earning years, fueling economic growth, and putting a dent in our unfunded-liabilities crisis by delaying payouts.” But what happens when a sixty-year-old is thrown out of work or a sixty-five-year-old cannot find a job he or she desperately needs, which is often the case today? They will hardly fuel economic growth, and may well struggle to pay for medical care under the current system or in a new arrangement where a voucher eventually replaces Medicare and is insufficient to buy decent health coverage from a private insurer.

About the time I was reading Malkin’s op-ed, some e-mails came in from the real world. A fifty-eight-year-old woman in Florida who had worked all her life often in well-paying managerial positions had to leave her job of nineteen years because she was having panic attacks due to job-related stress. She said her health was suffering and wanted to know when she could collect Social Security. She was having trouble finding work and worried that her savings and 401(k) plan, worth about $50,000, was inadequate for the long haul.

Another e-mail showed a different slice of reality from further down the income ladder. A counselor at a local tax counseling program for the elderly described women living on Social Security benefits of about $8,000 to $9,000 a year. The women had come in to file for a $90 food sales tax refund from the state. The counselor told me they said that with the refund they might be able to buy something other than hot dogs or hamburger. Many lived in HUD subsidized housing, which took one-third of their income off the top. The counselor said: “If they had income equivalent to the median (about $15,000 for older women receiving Social Security) they would be in ‘hog heaven.’”

Malkin pooh-poohed seniors’ groups for fretting that today’s workforce would not be able to handle longer careers. “Tell that to Betty White or Joan Rivers, or Helen Mirren,” she wrote. But even aging actresses have trouble finding work.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

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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: , , , , ,