Paying Attention to Social Security

Two takes from the MSM

Slowly, ever so slowly, the mainstream media is discovering the Social Security story. So it’s worth noting two pieces in prominent news outlets this week: one on by Chris Farrell, a contributing economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek, and the other in USA Today.

It’s refreshing to see Farrell’s piece, because it is not the usual doom-and-gloom treatment we’ve been seeing in the MSM. From the get-go, Farrell makes a crucial point: all entitlements are not created equal, although the anti-entitlement crowd and those in the press who like to quote them would have you believe that. Farrell writes:

Most commentary assumes that socialsecuritymedicaremedicaid is one word. Yes, they’re all entitlement programs, yet the bulk of the long-term budget pressure comes from higher health-care spending.

He then makes two more super-important points:

First, Social Security trustees guesstimate that the cost of Medicare will swell to more than 11 percent of GDP in 2083—94 percent more than Social Security will cost.
Second, there is no Social Security crisis. “The system,” he says, “isn’t broke.”

Farrell then discusses what he calls the “manageable” financial trouble down the road, and notes that economic growth might address some of Social Security’s projected shortfall. He calls for a “modest mix of changes such as raising the retirement age and doubling the cap on annual wages subject to the payroll tax.” He also mentions improving Social Security to augment the benefits, with a program of voluntary additional contributions. While all these proposals have pros and cons, at least Farrell’s story puts them on the media’s table. All to the good.

The USA Today story was garden variety gloom-and-doom, based on a poll the paper conducted with the Gallup organization. The headline was scary indeed: “Poll: Faith in Social Security system tanking.” So were the conclusions of the poll. It found that a majority of retirees expect their current benefits to be cut, which the paper said was “a dramatic increase in the number of people who hold that view.” Furthermore, Susan Page, who reported the story, noted that “a record six of 10 non-retirees predict Social Security won’t be able to pay them benefits when they stop working.” Skepticism is highest among the youngest workers, who don’t expect to get a Social Security check when they retire. That, of course, raises the question of what eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds will live on, but that’s a matter for another post.

Even scarier were two revealing quotes laced through the story. Social Security expert Alicia Munnell, whose research center at Boston College studies things like the adequacy of retirement income, said that the downbeat outlook reflects “all the attacks on Social Security that we have this total crisis in the program.” The fear and distrust resulting from the financial crisis may also have made people pessimistic, Munnell said.

USA Today did not report who was making all those attacks on Social Security. If it had, then readers might have better understood the quote that followed. After the paper told readers that “well-informed or not, public attitudes could affect the debate over what to do about Social Security,” the paper quoted Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who said: “It makes it easier to make some of the changes that we are inevitably going to have to make.”

Did MacGuineas mean the lack of Social Security smarts among the public? Or was it an admission that some of the PR activities of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and its supporters in Congress have had an effect?

We can’t answer that question, but we can ask a couple of our own: Does USA Today expect its readers to know who the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is? Where was the ID?

For those who don’t know, the Committee’s Web site offers some answers. The group was founded in the early 1980s as an outside-the-government voice on budget matters. It runs a number of ongoing projects. One is the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, funded, according to the Web site, “through generous support from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts.” It also runs the Fiscal Roadmap project. I clicked on the link, and up came an April 2010 report exploring fiscal crisis scenarios. The report listed the Committee’s directors. They included Peter Peterson and David M.Walker, who heads Peterson’s foundation.

In the spirit of disclosure, Peterson is also a funder of CJR.

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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.