Santorum Goes After Social Security

The AP covers Rick's empty rhetoric

Noting the media’s trivial pursuit of rising star Rick Santorum, my colleague Erika Fry has called for more substantive reporting on the candidate’s past and policy visions. I say “amen,” and applaud the fact the AP at least devoted a somewhat lengthy story to his call for immediate cuts to Social Security benefits. “We can’t wait 10 years,” Santorum told a New Hampshire crowd, and the AP reported he was “looking to set himself apart from his Republican rivals” who believe in a gradual phased-in approach to cutting Social Security that doesn’t take money away from those already receiving benefits.

The AP made an important point here, reporting “politicians typically suggest phase-in periods of up to a decade when broaching the topic of changing Social Security to avoid grievous consequences from angering older voters.” And late in the piece it laid out snippets of where the other candidates stand on Social Security.

Santorum argued that everyone must sacrifice now because the nation’s “house is on fire,” the cause of which, he said, is the soaring federal debt. In Ft. Dodge, Iowa, last week, the candidate argued: “We need to change benefits for everybody now…. Is everybody going to take a little bit of a hit? No, but a lot of people will,” he said. The AP reported this, but what he was saying on the stump got little attention then. How can Santorum want to change benefits for everyone, without everyone taking a hit? I’m confused; readers would be too.

The AP doesn’t call out that contradiction but does say Santorum wants tighter restrictions on benefits for upper-income people and says changes should include a higher eligibility age to qualify for benefits. The age for receiving full benefits soon rises to age sixty-seven. Does Santorum mean Americans should wait longer than age sixty-seven? Specifics please!That’s the policy vision Fry said was missing so far. If the electorate is being asked to sacrifice, at least they should know how they’re supposed to do that.

According to the AP, Santorum “did not offer details” about his Social Security plan but said wealthy retirees’ proportionate benefits should be trimmed further. What does wealthy mean in his lexicon? It’s good to know he did not offer details. But a better idea as the campaign progresses is to ask him such a question point blank and report his answer. If a slippery candidate doesn’t dot the Is and cross the Ts, the press surely should.

The AP reporter had a brief interview with Santorum, but it’s not clear he asked those questions. Instead the story reported that Santorum offered “only modest details on how he would implement his proposed changes.” The reporter asked Santorum if changes should be made now. “I think we should, yeah,” the candidate said. “Obviously we’re going to have to go through a debate next year and figure out ways in which to make the revenues meet the expenditures.” How’s that for noncommittal rhetoric? The AP reported, though, that Santorum said he didn’t favor higher taxes or more deficit spending to shore up Social Security. Did that mean he supports Obama’s payroll tax holiday and making it permanent? Dot connection, please! The story did tell readers that Santorum “has not said how much money he hopes to save” with the changes he is contemplating. Put that in the “nice-to- know” category.

It would have been better to make Santorum expand on his point that those over age sixty-five are the wealthiest group of Americans because Social Security has pulled the elderly out of poverty. Yes, Social Security did that, but such a broad statement is misleading when you consider the wide swaths of poverty still existing among the elderly especially older women. One third of all beneficiaries now rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income. The median income for older women receiving Social Security is about $15,000, for men about $26,000. The average monthly Social Security benefit is about $1200. That may not be a princely sum to the inside-the-Beltway crowd, but to someone who exists on that amount, even a $50 or a $100 cut means something substantial. Does Santorum believe those Americans must sacrifice too? Context, please!

Fry is correct. We need more red meat. The AP provided only a couple of bites.

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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: , , , , ,