Among the mysteries of modern politics in America is why so many of our leading pundits and politicians persistently seek to undermine Social Security, that enduring and successful emblem of active government. In the current atmosphere of budgetary panic, self-proclaimed “centrists” are joining with ideologues of the right in yet another campaign against the program — and yet again they are misinforming the public about its purposes, costs and prospects.

Among the puzzling aspects of the crusade against Social Security is the zeal that animates its enemies, as if the present and future recipients of those monthly checks were somehow fattening themselves at the expense of future generations. Whatever drives these well-fed but poorly informed commentators, it isn’t the facts.

First, let’s remember that Social Security actually provides support at a very modest level. Last year, the average retirement benefit was $1,170 a month, or about $14,000 a year, with the average disabled worker or widow receiving slightly less. (It would be wonderfully educational for the cable talkers and newspaper editorialists to live on that amount for a few months — they would not only lose weight but gain empathy.)

Remember, too, that despite our status as the largest and most productive economy in the world, Social Security is among the least generous retirement programs among all the developed nations. As a percentage of the average worker’s pre-retirement wages, the benefit has been declining for years and will continue to fall without any further cutbacks.

The check that used to replace 39 percent of worklife income will replace only 31 percent by 2031. Compare that with the average wage replacement in the nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — which was roughly 61 percent last year.

More important than those comparative statistics is the fact that the great majority of Social Security beneficiaries have no other cushion for their retirement — not because they were lazy or improvident, but because their wages were simply too low to permit much savings, let alone investment.

The foes of Social Security insist that they have no desire to force the elderly to eat cat food or go homeless — as they did in the years before the program existed. But we must cut drastically, they cry, because we can simply no longer afford the “entitlements” that we have bestowed so lavishly upon the old and the poor.

Whenever someone starts to talk about “entitlements,” keep in mind that they are either trying to bamboozle or they’ve been bamboozled themselves. Under that category, most commentators mix up Medicaid and Medicare — two programs that are indeed endangered by rising health care costs — with Social Security, which will be solvent until at least 2037 and can easily be made solvent for decades to come with minor changes. This is a rhetorical deception perpetrated countless times every day in nearly every media outlet.

The actuarial experts whose job is to monitor Social Security’s fortunes have long assured us that small and gradual rises in the tax revenues that support Social Security, accompanied by small and gradual shifts in benefits over the coming years, will solve whatever fiscal challenges the program may eventually confront. There is no reason to panic, and there is certainly no reason to consider wholesale changes in benefits.

Well, there is a reason, but only if your real aim is to destroy the system and replace it with something less useful but more profitable. Wall Street and its servants on Capitol Hill have lusted after Social Security’s revenues for many years. And they regard the current uproar over the budget as a fresh opportunity to get their hands on a trillion-dollar bonanza. Given their record in recent years, it is all too easy to imagine how badly that would work out for everybody — except them, of course.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2011


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