There are so many Social Security-bashing screeds floating around on the internet. Some are full of a few half-truths, but most are outright lies. I could spend every one of my weekly columns just trying to set the record straight.
These things get passed around via emails from one gullible and naive nitwit to the next. Today, I’m going to address one that has been polluting inboxes for almost a quarter-century now. In fact, I wrote my first column about it in 1997! It’s still around, and it’s still spreading falsehoods.
(By the way, I can give you a little clue about how to tell these diatribes are half-baked and splattered with lies. They are full of misspellings, run-on sentences, far too many capital letters and lots of exclamation points. You just know they are written by some angry old goat sitting at the computer in his basement and letting the government-hating venom ooze from his fingertips onto the keyboard!)
As I said, there are many of these, but the one I’ll address today is headlined “WHO TOOK MY MONEY?” It goes on for several pages trying to convince you that the Democrats are to blame for all kinds of supposed transgressions with the Social Security program.
It starts out with a whopper. It says, “Democratic President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver were the first ones to misuse the Social Security account. They used Social Security funds to start the Peace Corps.”
This is pure nonsense. It’s one of those situations where I don’t know how you disprove a negative. It simply did not happen. I don’t know what else to say.
In fact, later in his screed, the author of this garbage rebuts himself by trotting out the time-worn argument that President Lyndon Baines Johnson was the first chief executive to misuse Social Security funds and spend them on other purposes. I have explained what LBJ did about 100 times in this column. So, here comes explanation No. 101!
Because of the massive spending needed to fund the Vietnam War, Johnson’s administration was racking up huge deficits in the 1960s. But LBJ came up with a clever way to hide some of those deficits from the American people. He noticed that the government kept a completely separate set of books for the Social Security trust funds, which were running big surpluses at the time. So, he decided to combine the Social Security accounts with the overall federal budget ledgers. This made the budget deficits appear much smaller. But it is important to note this was just a bookkeeping gimmick. He simply combined the accounts on paper. He did not take one nickel out of the Social Security trust funds to spend for other purposes.
The author then goes on to say, “Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, promised that participation in the program would be completely voluntary.” That’s not true. In order to make Social Security more palatable to Republicans in Congress, the original law excluded groups of traditional Republican voters such as doctors, lawyers, and other self-employed people. But they were all eventually brought into the fold. And just so you know, mandatory social insurance is not unique to the United States. There are 165 Social Security programs around the world. And all of them are mandatory. That is the only way a nationwide social insurance system can work.
This half-baked harangue next alleges that FDR promised that “participants would only have to pay 1 percent of the first $1,400 of their annual incomes into the program.”
Once again, that’s just an outright lie. The Social Security bill that FDR signed in 1935 taxed income up to $3,000. And that same law called for an incremental adjustment to the tax rate, climbing from 1 percent in 1936 to 3 percent by 1949. Roosevelt and all legislators knew that, as the program grew in the future, its funding would also have to grow.
The wacky writer then falsely says, “the Social Security tax rate is now 7.65%.” That’s a common misperception. The Social Security tax rate is 6.2 percent. The other 1.45 percent is used to fund the completely separate Medicare program.
By the way, the last time the Social Security tax rate was increased was in 1983, during the administration of Ronald Reagan, definitely not a Democrat!
And speaking of Reagan, he gets a pass on something that the internet diatribe blames on President Bill Clinton. Specifically, the angry old goat wrote this: “Which political party started taxing Social Security? Answer: Clinton and the Democratic Party, with Al Gore casting the tie breaking vote.”
In truth, Social Security benefits were first made taxable during Reagan’s administration in 1984. But I should point out here that the idea to tax Social Security benefits was one of the proposals of the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform. This was a bipartisan commission headed by Alan Greenspan that was charged with coming up with solutions to Social Security’s pending financial woes. In addition to taxing benefits, some of their other proposals included increasing payroll taxes and raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.
And just so you know, those proposals and resulting legislation worked. The program has been running strong for almost four decades since those changes were made. But it is about time we set up another bipartisan commission to keep the program solvent for future generations.
But that’s a topic for another column. Back to this ridiculous rant. The author asks this question: “Which political party decided to start giving annuity payments to immigrants?” And he answers it this way: “That’s right. Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party. Immigrants moved into this country, and at age 65, began to receive Social Security payments. The Democratic Party gave these payments to them, even though they never paid a dime into it.”
Once again, that is just absolutely false. In truth, actuarial studies have shown that workers living here illegally who manage to obtain false documents, including fake Social Security numbers, and who work “above the table,” pump about $2 billion per year into the Social Security system and never collect a dime in benefits.
Perhaps the author is talking about the fact that immigrants who have come to this country legally are able to obtain Supplemental Security Income benefits if they are poor and over age 65 or disabled. SSI is a federal welfare program that is funded out of general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. The SSI program came about when Richard Nixon was president. And he definitely was not a Democrat!
Here’s the deal: People should stop trying to blame their perceived Social Security transgressions on one political party or another. Almost all Social Security legislation over the years has been the result of bipartisan efforts to make the program better for all of us.
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at email@example.com.