A meme that has been bubbling up in the media for months goes something like this: The elderly have it too good. They claim too much of the country’s financial resources and will eat their children’s—and grandchildren’s—breakfast, lunch, and dinner unless Social Security and Medicare are cut. The country can no longer afford to give seniors so much.

Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, is one of many who has given this idea voice. In a pre-Christmas interview on the CBS Evening News he said:

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.

In early March, Stanley Druckenmiller, the hedge fund guru, joined the chorus. He told Bloomberg Television, “I am not against seniors. What I am against is current seniors stealing from future seniors.”

There are many others. The Wall Street gods have spoken, and in the past few months, media stories have reflected their opinion, as well as that of the Simpson Bowles Commission, which was appointed by the president three years ago to figure out what to do about the deficit. The commission’s recommendations for cutting Medicare and Social Security have made their way into the press and helped shape a powerful story about generational conflict.

As a result, for the most part, the press has been presenting a one-sided picture of the Social Security situation, quite possibly to the detriment of young and the old alike. From other perspectives, the two generations are not in opposition at all, but natural allies, both with common interests in a strong Social Security system.

But you wouldn’t know anybody thought that way by reading much of the press, and not just the conservative press.

Jonathan Alter, writing for Bloomberg, argued that the last thing the country needed was a majority of House Democrats signing a letter urging the president to oppose benefit cuts to entitlements. He called the retirement of baby boomers “insanely expensive,” and if we don’t start talking about reforming social insurance, “grandpa and grandma and their fellow Grateful Dead fans are going to eat all the food on the table.”

Ronald Brownstein hits the generational issue head on in the National Journal, using the word “ominous” to describe the “budget’s accelerating tilt toward the elderly over the young and toward consumption over investment.” He’s unhappy that the sequester deal exempts Social Security and Medicaid and “only slightly nicks Medicare” with limited reductions to providers.

On NPR’s blog, Alan Greenblatt weights his piece in favor of kids. “Up to this point, young people are on the losing side,” the demographer and consultant Neil Howe told him. Save the Children’s vice president Mark Shriver says, “the sequester again shows that as a country we’re not willing to make an investment in our kids.” Greenblatt at least mentions counterarguments, but comes back home to the Greedy Geezers meme.

While it’s true that today’s young people will eventually grow old themselves, government budgets are about the present. And those who are now old are better protected than children and youth
.

Ezra Klein—et tu, Ezra?—ran into a swirl of criticism from his fans when he made a case in his WaPo column that “the most worthwhile kinds of government spending are getting squeezed out.” By that he meant education funding, research and development, stimulus, infrastructure investment, and the military. “The sequester,” he says “cuts deep into medical research and education, but it doesn’t touch Social Security at all.”

Those are just a few of the latest examples. Last summer there was another crop. New York Times columnist Bill Keller exhorted his fellow boomers to “make sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause. Stiffen the spines of our politicians and push lobby groups like A.A.R.P. to climb out of the bunker and lead.” City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin wrote in the Daily Beast, “No generation has suffered more from the Great Recession than the young. The wealth gap between younger and older Americans now stands as the widest on record.” And a few months before that, Esquire came forth with a lengthy piece called “The War Against Youth.” “The recession didn’t gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that,” part of the headline proclaimed.

The idea of generational warfare is almost as old as Social Security itself. Back in Eisenhower’s time the long knives were out for the program, prompting Ike to write to his brother:

Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Those were the days before the Koch Brothers, Peter G. Peterson, and the vast sums they and others lavished on conservative think tanks to provide the intellectual ammo for propelling their ideas into the public’s thinking. In 1983, Stuart Butler, now director of the Policy Innovation Center at the Heritage Foundation, and a colleague crafted a plan for the Cato Institute called “Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy,” which described in detail how to attack Social Security. It recommended an educational campaign “to gain support of key individuals in the media as well as to win over vital constituencies for political reform.” In the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, opponents of Social Security had based their attacks on ideology—the value of limited government—but those arguments gained little traction. By the late 1970s they had fashioned a new argument: Social Security was not affordable and had to be radically changed, and it was all because of the boomers.

The media took this frame seriously. In 1996, a CBS Evening News correspondent told viewers to “cross your fingers that Social Security will be saved.” In the mid-1990s, the Cato Institute and the Concord Coalition—a group founded by Peterson and others—worked hard to convince the press that Social Security was on the ropes. They sent out a steady stream of faxes, op-eds, and issue briefs to journalists while feeding them lunch and meeting with editorial boards. Martha Phillips, the executive director of the Concord Coalition at the time, reflected on the groups’ success with The Washington Post:

When we first started up they weren’t singing our tune. We sat down and explained why we felt so strongly about the (deficit reduction) program. They have just been reformed on this since then. They are saying entitlements have to be part of the solution. It’s like they’re reading right out of our playbook.

Michael Tanner, who directed Cato’s Social Security project, observed: “The media have been very sympathetic.” Dean Baker, then an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, now the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, put it differently: “The media have closed off discussion.”

Tanner was wrong about the debate being over, but the efforts of the 1990s softened the ground for the current onslaught of generational warfare raging in the media, framed as as “the greedy geezers versus the kids.” In May 1996, Atlantic Monthly gave Peter G. Peterson 21 pages to describe what the magazine said was the devastating impact of the baby boom generation on Medicare and Social Security. James Glassman, an economics columnist for The Washington Post, argued in late 1995 that “Americans in their twenties and thirties (never mind their children) have little chance of getting decent benefits when they retire, or perhaps any benefits at all.”

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:

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.

To be sure, Social Security is not in perfect fiscal health, but follow-the-meme reporting forecloses a robust discussion of the range of remedies to fix it. Edsall’s piece provides just that. He argues that the Beltway cognoscenti are far more inclined to discuss less costly approaches for the affluent: means testing benefits and raising the eligibility age. The one remedy that easily fixes the problem for decades to come is raising the cap on the amount of earned income subject to the payroll tax—$113,700 this year. Edsall cites a Congressional Budget Office estimate showing that eliminating the earnings cap would cost the affluent the equivalent of 0.6 percent of GDP. Reducing Social Security payments to the top third of the income distribution through means testing would cost them the equivalent of 0.1 percent of GDP. In other words, the affluent wouldn’t take as much of a hit with means testing—and means testing would also begin to turn Social Security into a welfare program instead of social insurance, a goal long-sought by some Beltway elites.

And where is the public in all of this? To find out I rang up Harvard pollster Robert Blendon who has just conducted a survey for the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This generational gap doesn’t appear to be as important politically as many influentials like to cite,” he said, “because many young adults know they have close family members who depend on these programs, and know they will depend on them in the future.” Unlike HUD or the Department of Commerce, he pointed out, “these programs directly affect peoples’ lives.”

Blendon added that people don’t see cutting Medicare and Social Security as priorities for solving the deficit or the national debt. In other words, there’s a disconnect between the people, the elites, and the press. Why? “There’s a conflict between the influential class and people worried about the future of retirement for their familes,” he said.

It’s that conflict the press has yet to report.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team. And follow Trudy Lieberman @Trudy_Lieberman.

Related stories:

How the media has shaped the Social Security debate

Can people afford to lose their Social Security COLA

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

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.