A recent CBS MoneyWatch piece titled “Social Insecurity” was one of those breezy, glib stories that seemed to telegraph important stuff, especially to the younger set, but actually typified the kind of shallow, incomplete coverage of Social Security we’ve seen in the last two years. That kind of reportage does a disservice to audiences and leaves them with misleading information. MoneyWatch did just that.
The story gave a brief history of Social Security asserting that “while Social Security started as a safety net, it morphed over time into one of the three streams of retirement income: Social Security, pension benefits and savings.” Social Security was intended to replace wages lost due to old age and death. It had much broader goals than simply providing retirement income, a rather modern-day term. Furthermore, as the program was gearing up in 1939, its actuaries predicted that it would replace certain percentages of income for beneficiaries. Paul Van de Water, a Social Security expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, points out that replacement rates today—the percentage of income Social Security replaces—has basically stayed the same over the years and are, in fact, beginning to decline as the retirement age gradually increases to sixty-seven. The idea that Social Security began as a tiny program and grew like Topsy just isn’t so, said Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, a progressive group that supports improving and protecting Social Security.
MoneyWatch also trotted out those shopworn—and scary—numbers about the shifting ratio of workers to beneficiaries, reporting that in 1940 there were forty-two workers per retiree; in 1950 there were sixteen workers for each retiree; now it’s 3.3, and in forty years, there will be only two workers per retiree. “Something has to give,” said MoneyWatch.
“The system’s actuaries understood very well people would live longer, and they took that into account with all their projections,” explained Altman. “Politicians have been using these misleading figures for a long time.” In 2004, when George W. Bush used them to build support for privatizing Social Security, Robert Ball, who served as Social Security commissioner under three presidents, sent me a note:
The plain fact of the matter is that Social Security faces an eminently avoidable long-range funding shortfall, not an inevitable collapse brought about by unmanageable changes in the historic ratio of workers to beneficiaries. Those who advance that argument are using an accurate statistic to make a highly inaccurate charge.
Altman said these ratios are crude measures that don’t tell you anything about affordability, which depends not just on the number of workers but also on productivity of those workers, which has been increasing. If such ratios have not influenced policy makers and are not good indicators of the nation’s ability to afford the program, why do the media keep using them? Because they are simple to understand and easily fit the dominant political narrative about Social Security—that we cannot afford it, and it must radically change it.
Altman and others believe there’s a better way to judge whether a particular program is affordable. That measure is the percentage of GDP the country spends on it. In the case of Social Security, spending is roughly 4.8 percent of GDP increasing to six percent in a few decades when the proportion of the population over age sixty-five increases from about twelve to twenty percent. It will remain there for the foreseeable future.
The question is whether we want to spend six percent of GDP on Social Security for everyone, which is less than many European countries now spend for old age pensions, or reduce it in favor of other programs? Or do we want to spend more and improve benefits? That is the political question on the table, which few in the media have directly addressed. MoneyWatch did not go there, but instead argued people will have to fend for themselves.
Older people will be okay, MoneyWatch reported, since they will be grandfathered into the existing program. Younger people under age thirty-five will have a tough time, but if they start saving early enough, MoneyWatch advises, they “may be able to glide through retirement.” Those between age thirty-five and fifty-five will “have to rely on the stronger two legs of the retirement stool—savings and retirement plans.” Stronger legs? The writer must be on another planet. It would have been great for her to note that retirement arrangements in the form of 401(k) plans are inadequate for most families. The median household headed by a person age sixty to sixty-two with a 401(k) plan has less than one-quarter of what is needed in the account to maintain the same standard of living in retirement, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and The Wall Street Journal.