The Education of Sen. Bennet

NPR passes along misinformation about Social Security

The squeaker victory of Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet landed him a spot on NPR’s Morning Edition the other day, and with it came a megaphone to talk about some timely topics such as health reform, extending the Bush tax cuts, and Social Security. Most of what Bennet said was not remarkable. He told host Renee Montagne that “we have to take a fresh approach to our system of government.” Duh! And he said “there’s more to be done there to change the Medicare incentive structure”—as if anyone knew what that meant.

Then Montagne got to entitlements, and their role in reducing the national debt. “Is there any entitlement that you’re willing to tackle in a way that is probably unpopular?” she asked. Bennet replied that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the debt make up 65 percent of the federal operating budget, and announced that Social Security was easier to fix than Medicare. He said:

I mean, people that are my age, forty-five, know that if this system exists as it is today, there’s not going to be anything left for us. I think it’s a conversation that we can have with the American people.

For months Campaign Desk has been urging that the press and the pols engage people on Social Security in advance of the release of the report from the president’s deficit commission, scheduled for December 1. A preliminary report came out yesterday. But to have a conversation, people need the correct facts, and Bennet slipped up in his NPR interview.

What’s more, Montagne didn’t challenge him when he said that there would be no money left for forty-five-year-olds like him, implying that the system would be broke by then. Instead, Montagne let Bennet prattle on about how people in Colorado are more sensible about these things than folks in Washington, and that we need to find a way to recreate the conversations we’re having out in our states—political blather that didn’t tell listeners much.

What they really needed to know was whether Bennet knew what he was talking about. And the bit about forty-five-year-olds getting shortchanged showed that he needs more education, a point made by one listener on the NPR website, who said “It would be nice if someone would familiarize themselves with an issue before commenting on it in public OR interviewing them on it. Social Security is completely stable until 2037.” That’s twenty-seven years from now. Twenty-two years from now, forty-five-year-olds will be eligible for their full benefits. So Bennet’s math doesn’t compute.

The 2010 report (‘spdf) of the Social Security system trustees notes that the program funds increase in dollars through 2024 and then begin to decline. But Social Security, however, will be able to pay scheduled benefits in full until 2037. Said the trustees:

Tax revenues are projected to be sufficient to support expenditures at a level of 78 percent of scheduled benefits after trust fund exhaustion in 2037, declining to 75 percent of scheduled benefits in 2084.

The Congressional Budget Office reached similar conclusions (pdf).

In 2039—CBO’s projected date for the exhaustion of the trust funds—revenues equal 79 percent of scheduled outlays in CBO’s projections. Thus, payable benefits will be 21 percent lower than scheduled benefits.

So you see, Mr. Bennet, there will be money for you and others in your cohort when you retire. The question is what route will you take to make sure all of you can collect full benefits when you are in your eighties and will no doubt need all the financial help you can get. That’s the question NPR should be asking you.

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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: , , , , ,