A dart to the AP—and a laurel!

Good work on fact-checking speeches; on Social Security, not so much


The Associated Press misled its many readers, unfortunately, about what is a Social Security benefit cut and what is not. A piece published August 27, one in a series the AP has been running, purports to break new ground in gauging public sentiment about the government’s largest social program. In other polls, the AP said, “most of the options for addressing Social Security scored poorly among the public, which helps explain why Congress hasn’t embraced them.” But the AP said its poll, conducted in mid-August, “forced people to make a choice: Raise taxes or cut benefits? Raise the retirement age or cut monthly payments?”

The problem? The AP didn’t tell survey responders or its readers that raising the retirement age is a cut, a big one that will result in smaller monthly benefits.

The AP’s lede:

Most Americans say go ahead and raise taxes if it will save Social Security benefits for future generations. And raise the retirement age, if you have to. Both options are preferable to cutting monthly benefits, even for people who are years away from applying for them.

The AP’s survey question:

If you had to choose, which would you prefer? Raising the age at which people can get Social Security but keeping monthly benefits the same for everyone, OR keeping the age at which people can get Social Security the same as it is now, but reducing monthly benefits for future generations.

Fifty-three percent of the people told the AP they preferred raising the age, while 35 percent would keep the retirement age the same as it is now and cut benefits for future generations.

Raising the age to collect full benefits is one way to cut the program’s outlays that does indeed result in a benefit cut. Three decades ago Congress enacted legislation to gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 66, and eventually to 67, because it needed to put the system on firmer financial ground. That change will result in about a 13 percent across the board benefit cut when it is fully phased in. Of course, people can always retire early, before age 67, and most do. But their benefit will be lower than what they would get under current law, no matter when they take it, because of the way the benefits formula is calculated. People can also work past normal retirement age, and they would still receive a lower benefit than they would under current law, due to that formula.

Raising the full retirement age further will result in similar benefit cuts. According to Nancy Altman, a widely respected Social Security expert who also co-directs the advocacy group Strengthen Social Security, benefits can be cut in many ways, including changing the way they are calculated or raising the retirement age. “Those two options can be structured so they are mathematically indistinguishable for retirees, giving the same result and providing the same monthly benefit,” she told me. “If Congress changes the law to set the retirement age for full benefits at 69, people will receive a monthly benefit that will be about 13 percent lower than it would otherwise be.”

Altman gave an example. Suppose a worker born in 1960 retires at age 67 and is entitled to a monthly benefit of $1000 under current law. In this example, if the retirement age to collect full benefits were 69, that same worker with the same earnings record, retiring on the same exact date, would receive $867 monthly—$133 less, or a reduction of about 13 percent—for the rest of his or her life, aside from cost of living adjustments.

The AP’s question, though, seems to incorrectly assume that raising the retirement age is not a benefit cut. What would the results have been had the question been worded something like this: “Would you prefer to raise taxes, or to cut benefits by raising the retirement age or cutting benefits in other ways?

Raising the age is high on the agenda of those who want to cut Social Security as part of any deficit deal Congress may make after the election. All options to reduce benefits are in play in ongoing Beltway discussions over fixing Social Security, which is projected to be able to pay full benefits until 2033, but only seventy-five percent of benefits after that, unless Congress changes the law. So far, the political climate has not permitted a robust discussion of other approaches, such as raising payroll taxes either outright, or by increasing the amount of wages subject to Social Security taxes—currently $110,100.

Still, when the AP asked whether Social Security taxes should be raised so that benefits could be kept the same for everyone, 53 percent said yes. Thirty-six percent said they would rather keep the tax rate the same but reduce benefits for future generations. The question did not permit a choice of an across-the-board tax increase or raising the wage base for the tax. Other polls show that around two-thirds of Americans prefer raising the wage base.

Raising the retirement age has a lot of political appeal because people are living longer. On the surface, it seems logical, and the pols can sell it easier than saying they want to cut benefits across the board. So when a story comes along, especially one that has such a long reach, that does not make clear that raising the retirement age is a benefit cut, it tends to confuse the public even more about a program that’s complicated. But, as the AP’s own poll shows, it’s one that is super important to most Americans.


Meanwhile: Kudos to AP reporters Jack Gillum and Richardo Alonso-Zaldivar for taking a close look at what vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and others, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said about Medicare at the GOP convention this week.

Ryan, for example, said: “The biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly…So they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.”

Ryan was talking out of both sides of his mouth, the fact checkers found. They pointed out that Ryan, who heads the House Budget Committee, himself assumed those same cuts in the budgets he pushed through the House and used the money for deficit reduction. Their fact check also noted, as CJR has repeatedly reported, those cuts do not affect Medicare beneficiaries directly, but “reduce payments to hospitals, health insurance plans, and other service providers.”

The AP told readers that Ryan’s own plan for Medicare would “squeeze the program’s spending even more than the changes Obama made, shifting future retirees into a system in which they would get a fixed payment to shop for coverage among private insurance plans.” The AP correctly noted that those changes would “expose the elderly to more out-of-pocket costs.”

Gillum and Alonso-Zaldivar then tackled the convention rhetoric of Christie and others, too. The piece is worth a read, and we hope the AP continues on its fact-checking mission on both parties, and that other reporters and news outlets will do the same.

Trudy Lieberman’s “Medicare primer” is here. And an archive of her critiques of press coverage of the issue is here.

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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: , , , ,