Americans shocked to learn that there isn't actually a Social Security crisis

A survey shows that deficit fear-mongering works, but it's overcome by simple counter-arguments

Published January 31, 2013 9:11PM (EST)

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson    (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The Washington Post's WonkBlog has a scoop: People don't want to cut Social Security!

The post concerns a recent survey that is actually pretty useful, in that it supports what should already be common sense: People have been led to believe that Social Security faces a crisis in funding. When you tell people some proposals for fixing it, they a) overwhelmingly choose to fund it more generously and b) decide that the program actually does not face any sort of crisis at all. A marketing firm hired by the National Academy of Social Insurance surveyed a random sampling of Americans and discovered that what people want is to raise taxes on rich (and regular!) people in order to fund more Social Security benefits, which is a good idea because the program is currently pretty stingy by international standards and Americans don't actually have pensions anymore.

For those unfamiliar with Social Security, it is a modest national social insurance program that helps prevent our nation's old people from starving in the streets, as many of them used to. It is not terribly progressive in its redistribution and it is overwhelmingly funded by the middle classes rather than the rich, but both of those factors have helped shield the program from the existential threats that programs intended explicitly for the poor face each time Republicans or neoliberal Democrats get the hankering for some reform. Politicians from both parties still regularly run on a platform of "ending welfare" and "strengthening Social Security."

Despite the staggering popularity and undeniable success of Social Security, a lot of political figures are obsessed with killing it. Some people want Social Security ended for honest ideological reasons, but most of the loudest voices in favor of "reforming" the program wish to do so because it would make them or their friends a lot of money by effectively forcing all Americans to gamble their retirements on the fluctuations of the giant Wall Street casino.

There's also this common Washington thing where if a certain proposal is hugely unpopular with everyone in the country besides a tiny wealthy elite, supporting that proposal is considered "serious" and "bold" and "brave." So despite it being a horrible and unpopular idea, proposals to weaken or effectively eliminate Social Security come up all the time in discussions of "the deficit." One common trick is to say we need to rein in "entitlements," which inexplicably lumps together Social Security with Medicare, another hugely popular program that, unlike Social Security, is going to cost more and more money to maintain in the medium term. Another common argument is to say that the program will face a shortfall in many years, making it urgently necessary to ... cut benefits, to make sure the program "survives."

The deficit fear-mongering succeeded in getting 57 percent of survey respondents to believe that Social Security is a "crisis or significant problem," until they learned that minor tax increases would make it totally sustainable for 75 years, at which point 74 percent of Americans were like "Oh, really? Then it seems fine, why don't they ever put it like that on the news." (That is not an exact quote from the survey.)

This news will presumably enrage and baffle Joe Scarborough, because everyone he knows knows that we must Do Something About Entitlements.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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