Social Security has been the topic of contentious debate over the last few months, some of it provoked by members of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
The Commission was created to consider all options for addressing the budget deficit, including changes to Social Security and Medicare.
I’m a passionate proponent of rational process and thoughtful discourse. I support addressing the budget deficit by taking the following steps:
- defining the problem,
- getting all options on the table,
- evaluating the pro’s and con’s of each fairly and objectively, and
- agreeing on the best option (or combination of options) to present to the President.
And for me—and I presume for millions of others—it’s been a long, disheartening slog through the health-care reform debate, crock-full of deliberating misleading and fallacious statements and made-to-stick, made-to-fool terms, such as “Death Panels.” It was an exhausting, stunningly divisive battle. We got through it, but did we learn anything?
A fundamental lie about Social Security
Commission member Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wis., claimed that—when Social Security became law in 1935—the retirement age was 65 while life expectancy was 63. As he put it,
The numbers added up pretty well back then. It was never designed to be a program that would last 25 0r 30 years, and so that’s one of the reasons why there is so much pressure on it.
Former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming makes essentially the same assertions. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times is a self-described collector of “half-truths and outright lies” about the program. As he sees it,
…Simpson has assiduously turned himself into a repository of every asinine misconception ever uttered about Social Security.
SSA numbers disprove those “asinine misconceptions”
The Social Security Administration acknowledges that looking at life expectancy statistics from the 1930’s might lead one to the conclusion that the program was designed so that people would work and pay into the system for many years but would not live long enough to collect the benefits. That’s because in 1930 life expectancy at birth was only 58 for men and 62 for women, while retirement age was 65.
But that analysis omits one crucial fact, namely that life expectancy at birth and life expectancy in adulthood were very different in those days. Life expectancy at birth was low due mainly to high infant mortality.
For example, according to a national vital statistics report (available at Social Security Online), in 1931 the average life expectancy at birth for all Americans was 61. But a baby who survived the infectious childhood diseases of the day and reached the age of 20 could expect to live to 66. And those who lived to 60 could expect to live another 15 years. In addition, in 1935 there was already a large and growing population (then 7.8 million people) who could receive Social Security. The report’s conclusion:
So Social Security was not designed in such a way that few people would collect the benefits.
This discrepancy indicates either a complete misunderstanding of the facts about the creation of the Social Security system or a deliberate distortion. Either former Senator Simpson was flat-out wrong or he was lying when he suggested that those who created the system in 1935 “connived to fleece the public by setting the retirement age well above life expectancy.”
Who’s trying to fleece the public now?
OK, I’m ranting, but I’m doing it for you. We deserve so much better. What do you think?