The Budget Narrative

The press goes astray on Social Security

For most of last year and so far into this one, the media has passed along the narrative that Social Security is a major cause of the nation’s deficit and it, along with other entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid, needs a good hair cut. The president’s now-defunct deficit commission and assorted deficit hawks peddled that notion so vigorously that it has now become conventional wisdom. And this week major MSM outlets have pounded the drum once more.

On Marketplace, after commenting that the president’s 2,500 page budget explanation is “kind of a big yawn,” host Kai Ryssdal turned the program over to John Dimsdale, who noted that the budget freezes domestic spending for five years, cuts help for the poor to pay for heat, and raises interest on student loans. Then he lamented that “there’s no fix in this budget for the big deficit generators like Medicare, Social Security or tax loopholes.” At another spot in the segment, he said Obama’s budget director Jack Lew was asked “why the budget doesn’t reflect some of the dramatic entitlement and tax reforms recommended by the president’s deficit commission.”

“Deficit generator.” “Dramatic entitlement reforms.” With that kind of language, can you blame the public for thinking Social Security is a big problem?

On the same day, NPR weighed in again on the deficit’s causes, with host Rebecca Roberts and NPR’s Washington senior editor Ron Elving doing the chatting this time on Talk of the Nation. A caller asked where the federal government got the authority to promise all this money and “create this budget deficit and then leave it to somebody else to clean up up.” Elving gave a brief history lesson about FDR and the creation of Social Security, and LBJ and the origin of Medicare, and how the government willingly assumed these obligations supported by the aforementioned presidents. “Those programs were popular and remain enormously popular today,” Elving replied. “People don’t want to see them cut. And yet those are the programs with the costs, along with defense, Medicaid and a few other things, that are driving this deficit.” Driving this deficit? How can you miss the point?

The New York Times got into the swing of it, too, with a piece by Jackie Calmes. In the fourth graph of her story, she wrote:

Neither party has put forward specific proposals to begin grappling with the most pressing long-term budget problem: the huge costs in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs as the population ages and medical costs rise, a bill that could overwhelm the government and crimp the economy if not addressed.

But there was another view of the problem expressed this week—by politicos, no less.
First, there was the president’s budget narrative —the “yawn,” in the parlance of Marketplace. It says:

Although Social Security does not face an immediate crisis and is not driving our short-term deficits or long-term debt, it does face a long-term financing shortfall.

Yes, it does, and experts of all stripes have suggested various fixes. The president, for his part, has not displayed his cards, simply suggesting six principles which are laid out in the budget message. That sounds like what he did on health care, too.

The president also repeated that point at his budget press conference when Ben Feller of the AP asked: “Your plan does not address the long-term crushing costs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid—the real drivers of long-term debt. Can you explain that?” The president explained: “The truth is that Social Security is not the huge contributor to the debt that the other two entitlements are.”

Then it was Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan’s turn, and he said pretty much the same thing. Paul Ryan, the hawkish, influential chair of the House Budget Committee? In an interview with Politico, Ryan said, with a bit of garble:

Social Security is a big part of the problem of future debt. Now as people know—now Social Security is not a contributor to our deficit of any material right now. Social Security is not a big driver of our debt problems. Medicare and Medicaid are the biggest drivers of our future debt problems.

Maybe this is one time when the media should be taking their cues from the pols as they craft their stories.

PS: While we’re in correction mode, let us note that Medicaid is not really an entitlement. People don’t pay into the program, so they are not “entitled” to a benefit, as they are with Social Security and Medicare. Medicaid is a means-tested welfare program. The poor who get those benefits must pass strict asset and income tests in order to receive a dime, and those tests might get much harder before this year’s budget process is over. So a bit of friendly advice: When talking about entitlements, please take Medicaid out of the mix. That goes for the pols, too.

Click here for more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform.

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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: , , , , ,