Former Sen. Alan Simpson’s interview on Fox Sunday was a doozy. His usual outspoken, outrageous, colorful self shined through, perhaps as a prelude to the first meeting of the federal deficit reduction commission, which he leads (and about which my colleague Holly Yeager posted the other day). Simpson never makes boring copy, and so far he has been consistently quotable in his remarks. He and his co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, make quite a media pair.
But the press needs to pay attention to what they are saying, because their drive to cut the deficit will affect the financial well-being of every man, woman, and child in America. So far the direction of the media coverage has been driven by their mantra: everything is on the table; no more Mr. Nice Guy when it comes to Social Security and Medicare. The Erskine and Alan show is laying the groundwork for drastically changing Social Security and Medicare in ways that might not be so palatable with the public.
It didn’t take Simpson long to climb on his hobbyhorse—that whatever the commission recommends will not hurt older folks. “Erskine and I are in this one for our grandchildren,” he said. “Somebody said they’re stalking horses for taxes. I’m not a stalking horse for taxes. I’m a stalking horse for my grandchildren.” Simpson told Fox anchor Chris Wallace that whatever “adjustment” is ultimately made, and whatever has been suggested in the way of Social Security reform for the last ten years, “none of that affects anybody over 57.” He said most of his mail was coming from:
“These old cats 70 and 80 years old who are not affected in one whiff. People who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount. This is madness.”
Perhaps Simpson hasn’t looked hard enough in Cody, Wyoming, or in other places where the elderly, particularly women, exist on rather small Social Security incomes. The average monthly benefit for all workers is about $1,150. These people are paying more and more for their health care out of pocket and will continue to do so after reform takes effect. I have spent a lot of my career talking to seniors, and I haven’t seen many living in gated communities, driving fancy cars. Walk down the streets of Torrington, Wyoming, not too far from where the former senator lives, to see the kinds of small, cramped, drafty houses where many of the town’s elderly survive. Some barely have enough for food, let alone gas for the cranky old vehicles they drive.
Once Simpson made his point about the fat cat geezers, Wallace tried to engage about what exactly he had in mind for the under-57 crowd: “You are talking about raising the retirement age, are you talking about higher taxes?” A fair enough question, to which Simpson replied: “I don’t know.” He said there were think tanks all over the country that have talked about how to resolve the Social Security problem and mentioned the 1983 commission that put the program on a sound footing. That commission resolved the problem, he said, “because they had all the facts they needed. So do we.”
If Simpson has all the facts, we’d like to know exactly how many seniors drive Lexuses and live in gated communities. If he doesn’t have the numbers, reporters following this story should pin him down or find out for themselves what the data show before spreading his sound bites far and wide, the way journalists did when Ronald Reagan called black women welfare queens who drove big cars while collecting food stamps.
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.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.