The Facts Ma’am—Just the Facts

Rick Perry dodges Social Security questions, while CNBC explains

Rick Perry zipped into Ottumwa, Iowa Saturday with a message about Social Security. Along with the usual jabs at the president and the bad economy, Perry went after Social Security. Said candidate Perry:

It’s a Ponzi scheme for these young people. The idea that they’re working and paying into Social Security today, that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie… It’s a monstrous lie on this generation, and we can’t do that to them.

Perry tried to reassure elders in the audience that he was not going to mess around with their Social Security benefits. But he called for a national conversation about changes for younger people, including raising the age for eligibility and means testing the program “Does Warren Buffett need to get Social Security? Maybe not,” he said. At a news conference in Des Moines, someone asked Perry whether he supported changes in eligibility for Social Security. Like candidates do, he avoided answering and repeated his call for a “national conversation about how we can save the Social Security program that people expect to have as a retirement program.” But what, exactly, would he do?

We do know from a report by Radio Iowa that Perry had some harsh words for a reporter who asked whether the governor’s campaign had “backed off” the idea, as expressed in his 2010 book Fed Up, that Social Security should not be “something that falls within” the authority of the federal government. Perry replied he hadn’t “backed off anything in my book” and admonished the reporter to read his book again and “get it right.” Another reporter pressed whether Perry believes Medicare is unconstitutional. He shot back: “I never said it was unconstitutional. I look at Medicare just like I look at Social Security. They’re programs that aren’t working.” The candidate wasn’t going to discuss the implicit aren’t-working-for-whom part of his assertion, instead calling for “national conversation about it.”

On the same day, one state away in Lincoln, Nebraska, not far from the home territory of Warren Buffett, Dan Holtmeyer, one of my journalism students, was doing man-on-the street interviews. The people he met spoke of the difficulty of getting simple facts without bias so they could better understand these issues. A student named Jamie told him she wished there were some basic explanations of the debt ceiling and Social Security, which could be followed up with substantive news articles.

Facts and definitions are usually not part of stump speeches, so the good people of Ottumwa were left with a misleading picture of Social Security, and the good people of Lincoln had only a fuzzy understanding as well, partly because the media haven’t done a bang-up job of cluing in the masses about how such programs actually work and why they might need them. Orwellian speak of campaigns is not supposed to enlighten—but press coverage of them should.

So I wanted to cheer when a piece was published on last week that seemed to be what Jamie, the student, was asking for. That article, “Social Security: CNBC Explains,” written by senior editor Mark Koba, is a much needed, simple, and clear primer on Social Security that gives answers to questions on how benefits are calculated, how benefits are taxed, how the program is funded, and what the trust fund is. You can even learn what those digits in your Social Security number mean.

Koba drove home why Social Security matters. The last section explains some of the controversy surrounding the program. Koba makes two points that have been missing from most of the Social Security reportage this year and provide important context for the public’s understanding:

• Big business opposed Social Security from the beginning because it imposed new taxes and bookkeeping chores and, as Koba put it, “undermined the absolute dependence of the employees on the company.”

• Eight percent of the elderly receiving Social Security are poor, but forty-eight percent of the elderly receiving Social Security checks would be below the poverty line if it weren’t for the program.

We spotted a couple of blemishes on Koba’s otherwise good work. Koba, linking to statistics from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, actually wrote that “forty-eight percent of Americans”—and not just seniors receiving checks—would be below the poverty line. And in the section describing who gets benefits, he omitted that survivors’ benefits are paid to families of breadwinners who die. I’ve always thought writing clearly about Social Security is tricky, but it’s good to see Koba take a crack at it.

As for Jamie, she might want to check out another primer from, one that explains the nitty-gritty of the national debt.

As for Perry’s assertion in Iowa that same day that he would abolish the “one size fits all” health reform law the minute he got to the White House, I will tackle that one in a future post.

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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: , ,