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Many Elderly Close to Poverty’s Edge

Social Security cuts could push them over the brink

11/20/2013, 11:17 a.m.
Peter Hart

Following the government shutdown drama, politicians in Washington appear hopelessly divided, according to conventional wisdom.

Fair enough. But there’s at least one area where many politicians from both of the major parties agree — and many of the TV talking heads and newspaper pontificators are with them, too. Social Security, they insist, “needs” to be cut.

For the last few years, after a major standoff, the usual Beltway pundits have been talking about something they like to call the “grand bargain.”

That sure sounds like a good thing. Who doesn’t love a bargain? Well, here’s the question you should ask yourself: Who’s actually getting one? It’s more likely than not that the savings aren’t headed your way.

In Washingtonspeak, a “grand bargain” means some kind of budget deal where everyone is forced to give a little in order to reduce the budget deficit and tackle the country’s debt. To get Republicans to agree to raise more revenue (i.e., taxes), Democrats have to agree to some spending cuts.

As with most things, the devil’s in the details. There’s essentially unanimous Republican opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy. That makes authentic bargaining tough. And on the other side, the cuts are intended for programs like Medicare and Social Security, key elements of the safety net and perhaps the most popular government spending programs.

Medicare and Social Security are remarkably successful in helping keep seniors and others in need out of poverty. But “households relying on (Social Security) for a significant share of their income often live dangerously close to the poverty line,” according to the Economic Policy Institute. That means cuts of any kind could jeopardize their living standards.

Pundits and journalists cheer this talk of a “bargain,” and they praise politicians — especially Democrats — who have the “courage” to back such cuts.

For the past few decades, politicians and pundits have ginned up a “crisis” over Social Security’s finances. At this point, you can say almost anything about Social Security and get away with it.

Right now, yet another wave of scare stories about Social Security has soaked the media. 60 Minutes recently did a segment about the allegedly rampant fraud in the Social Security disability system. But back in reality, disability benefits are difficult to collect, and the program is watched very closely for signs of cheating.

The Washington Post ran a big story about the problem of people collecting benefits for their deceased loved ones. Front-page news in the nation’s capital — but if you read closely, you would discover that we’re talking about 0.006 percent of the checks.

So long as the media can keep churning out this misleadingly alarmist Social Security coverage, more politicians will talk up the idea of “fixing” the program. When you hear them say this, you should know that they mean cutting benefits.

Be on the lookout: When the TV talking heads and politicians all agree that it’s time to strike a “grand bargain” to “protect” or “fix” Social Security, check the fine print. Someone’s getting a bargain, but it’s probably not you.

Peter Hart is the activism director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.