The Human Faces behind the Social Security Rhetoric

Good work from CBS News

Finally, a mainstream media outlet has broken through the dominant narrative about Social Security and showed what the program means in dollars and cents to the fifty-five million people who rely on its monthly checks. You would never know that Social Security had any connection to real human beings from the media’s emphasis on gigantic numbers and political scaremongering about the program going broke.

A major thread woven into most reportage has been that people are living longer—at least certain people are, like white men with good jobs—and that good fortune justifies raising the age for eligibility and changing the calculation for the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in ways that some experts believe could penalize very old people at a time when their incomes have dwindled. Proposed changes in the way COLA is figured will save the government a wad of money, though, and that, according to the Beltway’s financial wizards, is a good thing—a sentiment the press has not hesitated to pass along.

CBS told how the lack of COLA increases over the last few years have made it tough for seniors to pay for food, gasoline, medicine, and rent. But help is coming next year in the form of a Social Security raise, roughly about $38 for someone receiving the average benefit of $1082. For seniors, said correspondent Wyatt Andrews, “It’s real money and it’s about time.” One Florida man told viewers: “With the increase in Social Security, I will be able to have heat and cold whenever I need it.” Andrews offered more context about seniors’ financial predicament, reporting that low or nonexistent interest on their retirement nest eggs coupled with falling housing prices have made things worse. A triple whammy, you might say.

The reporting was notable, though, for two points that have been virtually ignored by the MSM. Anchor Scott Pelley wanted to know why seniors had not seen a COLA increase in three years, even though prices for food and gasoline have skyrocketed. Andrews explained that the law tied COLA increases to the Consumer Price Index for wage earners, but many seniors no longer earn wages, so the CPI doesn’t always reflect what they buy. One way to change the COLA formula, he said, might be to weight it in a way that tracks what seniors actually spend their money on, like transportation and health care.

The National Academy of Social Insurance has produced a report that explains different options for changing the COLA. Reporters might want to give it a look, since COLA changes will be a hot news topic when the congressional supercommittee tackles deficit issues at the end of the year.

Then came the story’s kicker, in which Pelley reported on who actually receives Social Security benefits: “We were surprised to see that about a third are under the age of sixty-five.” At last a news outlet was reporting that Social Security was not just for old people. Nearly seventeen million people under the age of sixty-five are on Social Security, Pelley reported. They were those receiving disability and survivor’s benefits. A surprise? It shouldn’t have been. Social Security was established in 1935 to insure against loss of income due to some of life’s major calamities—the loss of income from old age, disability, or the death of a breadwinner. It was good to see CBS pass this fact along to viewers, who probably did not know about it either. Now the next thing CBS might want to explore is whether this year’s COLA increases are adequate.

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: , , , , ,