Reagan, with the help of the press, effectively used his portrait of the welfare queen to stigmatize and undermine support for government assistance to needy Americans. In the words of University of Michigan communications professor Susan Douglas, Reagan “specialized in the exaggerated, outrageous tale that was almost always unsubstantiated, usually false, yet so sensational that it merited repeated recounting… And because his ‘examples’ of welfare queens drew on existing stereotypes of welfare cheats and resonated with news stories about welfare fraud, they did indeed gain real traction.” Before reporters latch onto the geezers in gated communities, it’d be wise to keep that lesson in mind.
Simpson’s colorful language has another effect, which is to create doubts among members of the public about whether they will ever collect their Social Security benefits. If that’s the case, folks might wonder, why should they support it?—a line of thinking that could open a big crack in the social solidarity that supports the program. We don’t know if Simpson had that in mind, but a new Rasmussen Reports survey shows that only 39 percent of U.S. voters are even somewhat confident that Social Security will pay them all of their promised benefits. Fifty-eight percent lack such confidence. Voters 30 to 49 worry the most. If they begin to doubt the program, it makes it easier to slide changes through, such as cutting benefits or raising the retirement age to 70.
Thoughtful reporting on this subject will not only mean resisting Simpson’s demonization of the elderly but also investigating the real retirement needs of the younger people whom the deficit commission is supposedly trying to help. They are the ones without the substantial private pensions that the better-off among today’s elderly enjoy. Their skimpy 401(k) plans won’t buy much space in gated communities. And they are not likely to remain in the workforce until age seventy, as some commentators suggest they should. Today’s retirees, many forced out of their jobs in their fifties and early sixties, have turned to their Social Security benefits as soon as they could to make ends meet.
So far, the early stories on the deficit commission’s activities haven’t gone there. It’s the old newsmaker problem again that we saw with health care: if the newsmakers and the pols aren’t talking about something, it doesn’t get reported. Simpson is the major newsmaker right now, and that’s why his false presentation of seniors is so troublesome.