Welfare, Entitlements, and Sharron Angle

What sayeth she now?

It’s fair to say that Sharron Angle is controversial. She’s the former Nevada state legislator who is running against Harry Reid, and some political bookies think she might give old Harry a run for his money in November. If that’s the case, it’s important for the media following the Angle angles to understand what exactly she is saying, and what that could mean for Americans.

Angle, it seems, doesn’t appear to know much about the Social Security system—what it is and what it is not. In a campaign ad, Reid captures Angle saying “My grandfather wouldn’t even take his Social Security check because he was not up for welfare.” Either grandpa was rich and didn’t need his check, or he didn’t know beans about Social Security.

Social Security is not welfare. Welfare implies assistance from the government based on means-tested criteria. People applying for assistance under Medicaid must have few assets and very little income, or they don’t get help. The modern day welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), also comes with strict rules for eligibility. FDR’s genius was to fund Social Security with payroll taxes, thus giving everyone a stake in the program. Americans automatically have a right to retirement, survivors’, and disability benefits based on earnings during their working lives. The children and spouses of all those workers killed at the World Trade Center receive survivors’ benefits, and many of those who cleaned up the site now get disability benefits. That’s social insurance, not welfare. Similarly, Medicare is also social insurance. People who turn sixty-five automatically qualify; they don’t need to prove they’re poor or any of that stuff.

Since the Reagan years, detractors of Social Security and Medicare have successfully tarnished both programs as “entitlements.” Plainly put, entitlements now have a bad name, although the dictionary defines the word as the right to benefits as specified by law. Those on Social Security and Medicare have earned a right to their benefits.

More Angleisms are seeping out. The Las Vegas Sun told readers about her appearance on Fox and Friends, where she was asked about wanting to get rid of Social Security. She said something about putting the money in a lockbox for senior citizens, and that Harry Reid has been raiding Social Security. “What we need to do is personalize Social Security so the government can no longer raid it,” she said.

Personalize Social Security? That sounds like a euphemism for privatizing accounts—letting each person control his or her own contributions, investing them where they choose. That’s kind of what happened when 401(k) plans replaced defined benefit pension plans, the pension system’s Cadillacs. Workers could put their 401(k) money in stocks and make a bundle. Only problem was, stocks go down, and thousands have now lost much of the value of their retirement savings, which they may or may not be able to recoup.

But back to the Fox interview. Asked whether she wanted to get rid of Social Security, Angle replied that was “nonsense,” contradicting what her Web site says:

Free market alternatives, which offer retirement choices to employees and employers, must be developed and offered to those still in their wage earning years, as the Social Security system is transitioned out. Young workers must be encouraged to investigate personal retirement account options.

Others in the media are beginning to take note of Sharron Angle. In his Los Angeles Times column last week, Michael Hiltzik reported on Angle’s interest in transitioning out Social Security and replacing it with personalized accounts. But for Hiltzik, her positions merely serve to underscore what he calls “minor tweaks” that can destroy Social Security:

Seemingly ‘minor’ fixes can have consequences great enough to wreck the entire edifice, the way a tiny water leak can eat away a foundation and bring down a house.
Hiltzik, who has written a book titled The Plot against Social Security, calls for vigilance in looking beneath the slick-sounding fixes, beneath the euphemisms, beneath the candidates’ rhetoric, in order to see what all that will really mean for the system and the fifty-three million people who depend on it. He has reason to worry.

Earlier this year I sat down with Bruce Vladeck, who headed Medicare during the Clinton years. Vladeck is as an astute observer of U.S. social insurance programs as there is. “The real story in social policy over the last twenty years,” he said, “is the rollback of wages of working people that happened without a peep, and that includes the restructuring of the pension system.” The burgeoning crusade against entitlements is a real story, too. The media needs to start taking notice.

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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.