Social Security is going broke even faster than expected, according to a report from the program’s actuaries released yesterday. At least, that’s the narrative the national media presented to the American public.
Headlines from across the country — like the following from the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times — were quick to paint a grim picture of the program’s future finances, noting that “painful” changes would need to be made to ensure its solvency beyond 2033:
The headlines and stories that follow create the illusion that Social Security is fast going broke, even though it is fully funded for another two decades and could pay 75 percent of its benefits thereafter (imagine the shock the media would display, meanwhile, if transportation, food stamps, or other programs had two decades of guaranteed funding).
They also ignore an easy way to ensure the program’s long-term solvency without large changes or cuts to benefits. Payroll taxes that finance Social Security are only collected on income up to a certain level ($110,100 in 2012), creating a regressive system that puts an undue burden on low- and middle-income workers. Eliminating that cap would allow Social Security to pay full benefits for the next 75 years, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) introduced legislation that would raise the cap last year, but it has been ignored by Republicans and the media, who instead continue to feed the narrative that Social Security needs vast changes — including potential benefit cuts — to shore up its future. Americans of all political stripes oppose cuts to Social Security benefits, but as the Columbia Journalism Review noted earlier this month, media coverage has perpetuated the belief — particularly among young Americans — that Social Security is broken.
“The elite press repeatedly quotes the commentary of the devoted opponents of social insurance retirement programs,” Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor told CJR. “But they appear unaware of how they are supporting a strategic attack on social insurance that has been going on for years.”