Entitled to better reporting

There's a wider (and increasingly urgent) Social Security story out there--beyond the Beltway and deficit talk

A year ago, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein appeared on the CBS Evening News to talk about the debt crisis—a crisis fueled, according to conventional wisdom, by entitlements, particularly Social Security. Blankfein told viewers: “You’re going to have to undoubtedly do something to lower people’s expectations—the entitlements and what people think they’re going to get, because it’s not going to, they’re not going to get it.” CBS News anchor Scott Pelley didn’t ask why, and simply repeated the standard media message: “Because we can’t afford them going forward?” Blankfein agreed.

That segment about summed up how the media (particularly The Washington Post, as I wrote at the time) was covering Social Security and its major story lines: the country can no longer afford it; it’s going bankrupt; the COLA formula is too generous. In other words, the Beltway’s Social Security narrative was passed on by the mainstream media, who were taking their cues from Blankfein and other deficit hawks. With the notable exception of liberal blogger Duncan Black, whose online moniker is Atrios, the media rarely discussed the deeper, related narrative—the looming crisis in retirement income.

Black began writing about this crisis and arguing for increasing Social Security retirement benefits in a series of columns for USA Today during the 2012 election season and in to 2013. It was an unthinkable notion. Black recalled his initial approach to the columns in an October profile in Pacific Standard magazine: “People say we should cut Social Security, I’ll say let’s expand it. It was kind of a lark.” Only after he attended a conference in early 2013 held by the National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan policy group, did Black understand the “urgency of his case.”

Enter Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who took to the Senate floor in mid-November to argue:

With tens of millions of people more financially stressed as they approach retirement, with more and more people left out of the private retirement security system, and with the economic security of our families unraveling, Social Security is rapidly becoming the only lifeline that millions of seniors have to keep their heads above water. And yet instead of taking on the retirement crises, instead of strengthening Social Security, some in Washington are actually fighting to cut benefits. We should be talking about expanding Social Security benefits—not cutting them.

With Warren’s words in the air, maybe now we’ll see some press attention paid to Social Security that is not tied to federal government deficit concerns—which tends to be the dominant anchor. There is more to the Social Security story than the well-covered case for cutting benefits. The state of private savings and pensions, for example, is a big, complex, and neglected story—along with Social Security and how they all fit into the bigger picture.

For reporters interested in pursuing the wider Social Security story, I offer a couple of suggestions:

1) There are many ways to tell the story of the coming retirement crises; The most effective ones involve people. For example, back in August, NBC Nightly News had a simple but compelling segment featuring fifty-one-year-old Charlene Rose. Rose isn’t able to save much for her retirement because half of her paycheck goes to paying student loans—her own and her children’s. She is “part of a group of Americans fifty to fifty-nine years old who owe a hundred and twelve billion dollars in student loans… more than triple what that age group owed in 2005.” NBC News offered a glimpse at one woman’s very uncertain retirement prospects—there are myriad other such stories for the telling, all of which can help broaden what has to date been a too narrow discussion.

2) Look for sources beyond the Beltway. A few academics, for example, have been sounding alarm bells in recent years about Social Security and retirement income. In July 2012 New York Times op-ed, New School professor Teresa Ghilarducci wrote:

The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle-and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.

In an interview with CJR in late 2010, Social Security expert Alicia Munnell—who directs the Retirement Research Center at Boston College—told us that by the time people reach their seventies and eighties, their assets are used up. Too many people will depend on Social Security, and their monthly benefits will be inadequate. Munnell said she didn’t favor changing Social Security at that time because “we haven’t really had a debate.” The first step, she explained, was raising public awareness of the problem, how Social Security fit in, and the implications of different options for addressing it.

Reporters would do well to add non-Beltway folks like Ghilarducci and Munnell to their source mix.

Social Security will no doubt edge back into the media conscience as the next debt ceiling deadline approaches. But the story needs to move out of the Beltway and onto Main Street, where reporters can ask real retirees how they’re faring and whether those retiring in the future are really prepared. Reporters have a job to do in furthering that conversation.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

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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.