Media coverage reflects what sells, and the political arena is no exception. Conflict and hypocrisy reign supreme, while the realities of policy are often left to fend for themselves. Social Security is a poignant example of such casualties. It is often the victim of misinformation and political agendas, which are designed to obscure the fact that a majority of Americans support the program. Most recently, Social Security was hijacked by the conversation about the national debt, yet another attempt by conservatives to reframe the narrative and detract from the facts. Consequently, the program's fundamentals were once again lost to media spin, which sees no profitable advantage in telling a non-partisan story. The media's reluctance to move beyond Republican sound bites is a fundamental disservice to Americans across the country. How else are they supposed to get the full story?
The facts alone are telling, but no one talks about them. Social Security provides over 50% of income for two out of every three seniors, and without it most elderly Americans would live in poverty. At the end of 2009, $672 billion dollars was going to 52 million Americans; one in six people receive Social Security benefits. The program is the most effective and efficient in our history; less than 2% goes to administrative overhead and the other 98 plus percent goes right back to beneficiaries. After September 11th, it took just three days for benefits to be provided to families who were beneficiaries and lost a loved one in the tragedy. We recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, but a large percentage of Americans celebrate it every month.
The irony in all the hype about the dangers of the national debt is that all age groups support Social Security, from the Millennial generation to retirees, and only 2% believe it is the primary contributor to the national debt. This should surprise no one, and yet in the conservatives' eyes, the program might as well be a red flag waving in front of a bull. The same individuals who rail against big government spending refuse to connect Social Security payments with the very notion of a public safety net and a positive example of government in the lives of its citizenry.
The millennial generation supports community-based economic prosperity and they also value a flexible social safety net. Samantha Reed graduates from Northwestern University this spring, but growing up with a disabled parent, she depended on monthly Social Security support to buy warm coats and shoes for the wintertime. When it came time to buy school supplies or a computer so she could write papers in high school, it was purchased largely thanks to disability payments. She worked 20 to 30 hours a week in high school to purchase her own car so she could stay after school late as President of the Key Club at her school. "All of those little costs that no one really thinks about add up," Sam told me. "Without them, it's hard to fully succeed and be a competitive college applicant." There are millions more just like her who depend on Social Security and 70% of Americans under 35 believe they will need benefits when they retire.
Those in the conservative party who argue that this program is one of the main contributors to the debt are motivated by a narrow and self-serving agenda. In a unified voice, they are advocating the destruction of millions of lives that are already precariously balanced on the edge of poverty. Maybe they're concerned that if average Americans really connected the dots, their argument for limited government would become the boat that sprang a thousand leaks. It is time to talk about the real issues contributing to the national debt, putting aside the larger discussion about the effects of the deficit in the long-term, because debates should deal in facts. The burden of any solutions should not fall on the shoulders of citizens who did not contribute to the reasons for rising debt: market failure and the deterioration of the housing market. One can only marvel at the hypocrisy in the GOP argument as they continue to push through tax breaks that run counter to their fiscal responsibility arguments, while simultaneously wondering why progressives have not figured out a more effective way to exploit this discrepancy between policy and rhetoric.
That brings us back to health care. The CBO estimated that the recent health care reform bill, now once again on the floor for debate, would trim an estimated 124 billion off the federal deficit over the next ten years. If conservatives are true deficit hawks, why not leave health care reform alone and focus on the economy and job creation? Too few Americans bother to question the logic behind punditry. Policy will never be sexy enough to garner that kind of attention.
I have one final suggestion: if we have to revisit health care, thanks to the new House majority, let's look at even more ways to trim costs. I'm betting that many economists will make recommendations that can cut program costs, yet will be vetoed by conservatives. Such is the eternal and fickle conflict between politics and policy.
**Check out more about Social Security's importance and strength in ND20's series Social Security's Fiscal Fitness.
Tarsi Dunlop is the Director of Operations at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network.