Media continued to distort impact of Social Security means testing on middle class, working poor
Research ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER
Echoing numerous print and television outlets, media figures continued to misstate the impact of President Bush's proposal to reduce Social Security benefits for middle- and higher-income workers relative to what current law promises. While numerous pundits ignored the benefit cuts facing middle-class Americans under Bush's plan by creating a false dichotomy between rich and poor, New York Times columnist John Tierney falsely claimed that Bush actually "promised to improve benefits for the poor." In fact, Bush's proposal to address Social Security's solvency through benefit cuts that vary by income level would likely result in substantial benefit cuts for middle-income Americans, while leaving benefit levels unchanged for workers making less than $20,000 annually.
On the April 29 edition of his nationally syndicated radio program, host Rush Limbaugh declared that only the rich "get screwed" by means testing. On the April 30 edition of CNN's The Capital Gang, when panelist Margaret Carlson noted that Bush's proposal "hits people earning $20,000 a year -- that's working and middle-class people," co-panelist and National Review Washington editor Kate O'Beirne baselessly dismissed Carlson's remarks: "Margaret's numbers are off, of course, on the benefit adjustment."
Similarly, on the May 1 edition of NBC's The Chris Matthews Show, host Matthews repeatedly suggested that means testing would result in cuts only for those who "do well" or "make more than the average income," at one point stating: "Future benefits will depend to a large extent on how much money you make; if you make a lot or more than most people, you will get lower benefits." Blogger and commentator Andrew Sullivan also ignored the negative impact of means testing on the middle class, touting it's "progressivity" and declaring: "I don't see why the Democrats shouldn't support that at some level."
But Bush's plan for means testing would result in benefit cuts for millions of Americans who are far from wealthy. The Bush proposal would likely reduce the level of guaranteed benefits promised under the current Social Security system for all workers making more than $20,000 a year -- just above the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children under 18 -- while leaving guaranteed benefit levels for those making less than $20,000 unchanged.*
Tierney took the argument one step further in his April 30 Times column, claiming that Bush "sounded ... like Robin Hood" when he "promised to improve benefits for the poor while limiting them for everyone else." In fact, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities of the plan developed by Robert C. Pozen, upon which the Bush proposal is reportedly based, "low-earners would continue to receive the Social Security benefits promised under current law, which are based on a formula that uses 'wage indexing.' "