Expand Social Security

Activists participate in a rally urging the expansion of Social Security benefits in front of the White House July 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Social Security Works, the AFL-CIO and additional organizations held the event to deliver 'more than 2 million petition signatures' in support of expanding Social Security benefits.

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Over and Over Again, The Corporate Media Spews GOP Propaganda on Social Security

Media outlets, particularly the Washington Post, have long pushed the myth that Social Security is a driver of the national debt.

The Washington Post fearmongered about the latest projections reported by the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, declaring in its headline “Social Security and Medicare finances look grim as overall debt piles up.” The Post, which put a negative spin on the trustee report despite it showing improved conditions from the previous year, then pushed misleading framing about Social Security and misinformed readers about President Joe Biden’s and former President Donald Trump’s proposals regarding the future of the program.

The Post falsely claimed Social Security will run out of money

The Post ran a misleading headline, “Social Security and Medicare finances look grim as overall debt piles up,” only to partially contradict itself in the sub-headline: “A hot job market means the programs won’t run out of money as fast as once feared, but projections are still bleak.”

In fact, the report from the Social Security board of trustees showed a slight improvement to the program’s fiscal outlook, thanks to economic growth and low unemployment increasing the amount of tax revenue paid into the system.

Even the fiscal obstacle to which the report is looking ahead is not as dire or unavoidable as the Post makes it out to be. The issue is that the amount of revenue taken in from payroll taxes has been lower than the benefits paid out in recent years, forcing the program to tap into its accumulated trust fund in order to pay scheduled benefits in full. But even if no policy changes are made at all, and the current economic projections continue to the year 2035, Social Security would not “run out of money,” as the Post phrased it.

According to the trustee report, current revenue and spending levels can sustain full scheduled Social Security benefits through 2035, after which point the program can sustain 83% of scheduled benefits, a significant hit but a far cry from having no money at all. Moreover, a number of potential solutions are still feasible, which could avoid that steep cut.

Last year’s trustees report examined multiple policy options to extend the solvency of Social Security’s trust fund. One in particular — eliminating the payroll tax cap on taxable income without increasing benefit outlays — was projected to increase the solvency through about 2060. (And that was just one possibility, among many. The Congressional Budget Office has periodically produced reports on the effects of payroll tax adjustments, consistently finding that raising the payroll tax or amending it to include more high incomes would drastically improve Social Security’s finances.)

The Post misleadingly tied Social Security to the national debt

The Post headline tied Social Security to the national debt, and the article claimed that Social Security may be “plunging the nation into insurmountable debt” if the trust fund’s solvency isn’t extended.

But as retirement journalist Mark Miller explained in a Reuters myth-busting column on Social Security, “By law, Social Security cannot contribute to the federal deficit, because it is required to pay benefits only from its trust funds,” which are “funded through a dedicated payroll tax.” This point is also made by economist Alicia Munnell, the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, who wrote: “Social Security does not contribute one iota to the deficit, since, by law, it can only pay benefits from its trust funds.”

The only way Social Security could ever contribute to the national debt would be if Congress passed new legislation, which was then also signed into law by the president, permitting general revenue to pay out benefits. Congress could just as easily pass a law raising the payroll tax cap, which is currently indexed to $168,600 and applies to around 82% of all taxable income. Every dollar earned after that $168,600 threshold is exempt from payroll taxes, resulting in people with extremely high incomes contributing a lower percentage of their income to Social Security than people who earn less.

Media outlets, particularly the Post, have long pushed the myth that Social Security is a driver of the national debt. Far from contributing to the national debt, Social Security was for many years the U.S. government's "single biggest creditor," as the trust fund is required by law to invest its surplus revenue in U.S. Treasury bonds.

The Post falsely claimed Biden has no plan to strengthen Social Security’s finances

The Post made a blundering attempt at both-sides coverage of this issue in the presidential election, bizarrely proclaiming, “Neither Biden nor former president Donald Trump have released proposals to right Social Security’s finances.” But then, in the very next sentence, the Post included one of Biden’s actual ideas to deal with the fiscal issue: “Biden has signaled a desire to raise taxes on individuals earning more than $400,000 and devote that new revenue to the Social Security Trust Fund.” (This would be one version of the aforementioned options to raise the payroll tax threshold.)

Such a proposal would indeed add years to the trust fund. But, because the Post dismissed the idea as seemingly not a serious proposal, it didn’t bother to do the math to find out. The Post’s decision to virtually ignore Biden’s policy is particularly strange given that it was included in his budget proposal published in March and featured prominently in his State of the Union address (also in March).

The Post then contrasted Biden’s opposition to benefit cuts, as he voiced in his past two State of the Union addresses, with Trump’s dithering on the entire subject: “Trump has floated cuts to the programs, but quickly backpedaled from that position and insisted he wouldn’t support reducing benefits.”

The Post is putting its own spin on Trump’s record here. This March, while Biden was outlining his plan to sustain Social Security through payroll taxes, Trump signaled his openness to gutting the program. When Trump was president, he proposed completely eliminating the payroll tax that funds Social Security, and each one of his budget proposals included cuts to the program, facts the Post had previously reported.

The Post has previously used concern over Social Security’s finances to push for benefit cuts

On Threads, American Independent senior writer Oliver Willis (a former Media Matters writer) posted images of Post headlines going back decades, showing the paper spreading panic of looming insolvency for both Social Security and Medicare. If some of these headlines were to be believed, the U.S. would have exhausted some trust funds years, even decades ago. Indeed, just a year ago, the Post warned of the same problem — but arriving a few years earlier, with the headline “Social Security funding crisis will arrive in 2033, U.S. projects.”

That same month, the Post’s editorial board called for, among other things, benefit cuts through “gradually indexing up the age, currently 67, at which people may retire at full benefits, to take account of longer retirements due to rising life expectancy,” among other changes. This is nothing new for the Post; in a nearly two-and-a-half-year period after November 2010, the Post editorial board published 23 editorials that mentioned benefit cuts as a solution for Social Security shortfalls, compared to just 4 articles which mentioned increasing revenues as a solution.

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