The lopsided debate over the past three years has focused almost exclusively on Social Security as a retirement program. The media have virtually ignored what else it does. When you consider the survivors’ benefits paid to more than four million widows and widowers, to some two million children whose parents have died, and to breadwinners who become disabled, Social Security becomes more than retirement income. About seven million children live in households that depend on Social Security to support the family. Grandparents are raising thousands of them. In the end, Social Security cuts for grandma and grandpa may affect the money available for food, clothing, after school activities, maybe even college. (It’s worth noting that the child’s benefit that helped pay for college expenses until age 22 ended long ago.)
A young man I met in Illinois not too long ago, who was about to become a father, told me he had never heard of Social Security survivor’s benefits. No one had ever explained that if he died when his child was young, Social Security provided a floor of protection. The Social Security messages from the media had conveyed relentlessly only that the program was in trouble. “It hasn’t been shouted loudly enough that Social Security is a system that works for families and all generations,” says Butts. “Most of the rhetoric is about retirement. It’s amazing how people don’t connect the dots.”
Indeed they don’t. Social Security is a people story if there ever was one, but there have been very few stories about people—the faces that all members of Congress never see. Instead, reporters have preferred to populate their pieces with numbers and repetitious quotes supporting the meme.
It’s amazing, though, what you learn when you do some legwork. At the end of last year I did some of that. For example, I found a 61-year-old woman suddenly thrown on Social Security disability because of a serious heart attack, and a 64-year-old woman forced to take her benefits early because she had no job. Over time these Boomers, who now have so little to live on, would have even less with the lower COLA adjustments called for by the chained CPI. When you see their budgets, you get the point.
Stories exploring the effect of Beltway proposals on ordinary people, declining income in old age, and changes in retirement income, push back on the Greedy Geezer meme. The kids’ part of the story needs more reporting too. The young have legitimate needs.
Can both generations be dealt with fairly? That’s a political question, but one the press might want to raise, and often. Eric Kingson, a co-director of Social Security Works and a professor of social work at Syracuse, has studied generational fairness and argues that the concept of generational accounting—calculating which generation does better or worse—tends to accept huge disparities within generations while elevating fairness between generations as the dominate measure of fairness. “It distracts attention from fairness in terms of how we, as a society, distribute education and work opportunities, income and wealth, at any point in time,” Kingson says. “The press can’t stop itself from framing policy choices in terms of young versus old as opposed to kids verses the one percent.” The media have yet to explore the depths of Kingson’s argument.
In the last couple of weeks, however, there have been stirrings of a pushback against the Greedy Geezer meme—Hiltzik’s Los Angeles Times column is one example. Matthew Yglesias made a strong case for Social Security in Slate. And Thomas Edsall wrote a fine column in The New York Times, which starts this way:
The debate over reform of Social Security and Medicare is taking place in a vacuum, without adequate consideration of fundamental facts.
These facts include the following: Two-thirds of Americans who are over the age of 65 depend on an average annual Social Security benefit of $15,168.36 for at least half of their income.