In pursuing that frame, the media have passed along ideas without adequately exploring what they mean or hearing from other perspectives. For example:

Cutting Social Security and Medicare will save the programs for future generations:

While this is a favorite talking point for the pols and the press, there is another side to the story. It’s a “camouflage,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an advocacy group for children, youth, and older adults. “It’s frustrating that some of the people who hide behind the shield to help the next generation are actually hurting it.”

If Social Security benefits, already pretty modest—averaging $1,230 a month for a retired worker at the beginning of 2012—are cut, that means the next generation and perhaps the next will have less guaranteed income to depend on when they too, inevitably, get older. Given that good defined benefit pension plans are being replaced by the more iffy and inadequate 401Ks; given that they will be pushed to pay more for their healthcare, given that the age for collecting full Social Security benefits is already rising; given that the savings rate for most Americans is horrifying—what exactly are the young going to live on when they get older?

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik summed up their predicament:

The people who will really suffer from gutting Social Security won’t be today’s seniors, who will escape the worst of the cutbacks—they’ll be today’s young people, for whom Social Security would become much less supportive when they retire.

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that a bit more than half of American workers 30 and older are on a path that leaves them unprepared for retirement, a point made in a piece by Michael Fletcher in The Washington Post. The Center’s director, Alicia Munnell, told him, “There’s a mismatch between retirement needs rising and retirement benefits contracting.” In other words, just as the elderly start to need more money, they’ll have less of it.

Old people are doing very well and don’t need the money:

” Social Security has been America’s most successful anti-poverty program—both alleviating and preventing it,” says Nancy Altman, co-director of the advocacy group Social Security Works. In 1934, before there were national statistics, surveys in New York, Connecticut, and Wisconsin found that nearly half of those over 65 had less than a subsistence income. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that without Social Security, about half of that group today would still have subsistence incomes.

But Social Security’s success in keeping elders out of poverty hardly means that all 40 million Americans over age 65 are rolling in dough. The Medicare Rights Center notes that even with Social Security, half of all Medicare beneficiaries live on incomes of $22,000 or less, and spend one-third of their household income on healthcare.

Pockets of poverty, particularly among older women, still exist. “Aging is the gateway to poverty,” says Teresa Ghilarducci, a pension expert at The New School in New York City. She told me that seniors between 65 and 70 are spending down assets quicker than they should and quicker than they had expected. By age 70, cash flow is getting tight, so they skimp on medicines and miss doctors’ appointments. And between age 70 and 75 they “give themselves a raise by skipping meals,” Ghilarducci says. In very old age, they’ve often used up pension assets and savings.

That’s just when the chained CPI—the much talked-about alternative for calculating Social Security cost-of-living increases and one apparently supported by the White House—begins to pinch.

The chained CPI reduces cost-of-living adjustments over time and saves gobs of money for the government. Its effect on seniors as they age is a different matter. The effect compounds as a person gets older, so by the time someone reaches age 85, he or she would have about $1,139 a year less to live on, according to Social Security Works. That may be trivial to Lloyd Blankfein, but a king’s ransom to a struggling 85-year-old.

Social Security is a generational program:

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and 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. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.