Media figures continued to omit facts in discussing the status of Social Security, instead echoing the Bush administration's crisis rhetoric used to gain support for its proposed partial privatization of the federal program. Washington Post staff writer Jonathan Weisman began his January 2 article on “revamping Social Security” by reporting, “In just 14 years, the nation's Social Security system is projected to reach a day of reckoning.” Chris Matthews similarly implied impending doom for the system on the January 2 edition of the syndicated Chris Matthews Show when he said: “Here's the urgency -- pretty soon you'll have two people working for one retiree.” Matthews also cited a flawed ten-year-old poll to claim that more young people believe in UFOs than believe that Social Security benefits will be available to them when they retire.
Weisman's report that Social Security will “reach a day of reckoning” in “just 14 years” is misleading. As Media Matters for America has previously noted, Social Security is projected to remain solvent until 2042, according to the U.S. government's 2004 annual report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance Trust Funds. In 2042, the Social Security trust fund is projected to run out; in 2018, the date the Post referred to, the program's payouts to retirees are projected to exceed tax revenue. At that time, as planned, the government will have to supplement revenues with the Social Security trust fund to meet payment obligations to retirees, but the system will not be insolvent.
Matthews described the need to make changes to Social Security as urgent because “pretty soon you'll have two people working for one retiree.” But as Media Matters previously documented (crediting Bob Somerby's Daily Howler), the oft-repeated pro-privatization talking point that the declining number of taxpayers per retiree means the Social Security system is doomed was debunked by economists Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot in their book Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 1999):
BAKER/WEISBROT (continuing directly): But the decline in this ratio has actually been considerably steeper in the past. In 1955 there were 8.6 workers per retiree, and the decline from 8.6 to 3.3 did not precipitate any economic disaster.
These figures also neglect to take into account the reduced costs faced by the working population from having a smaller proportion of children to support. A more accurate measure of the actual burden faced by the employed labor force would be the total dependency ratio, which includes both retirees and children relative to the number of workers. This ratio is projected to increase from 0.708 today to 0.796 in 2035. This is not a large increase, and the latter figure is considerably below the ratio for the year 1965, which was 0.947.
Matthews also stated that “you've seen these polls where more young people in their twenties and thirties believe in UFOs than they believe the [Social Security] money's going to be there when they're 65.” But what Matthews failed to mention is that the poll to which he referred is ten years old and inconsistent with findings of a 1997 poll.
According to the 1994 poll, 46 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds believed that UFOs exist, while 28 percent thought Social Security will exist when they retire. But, as professors and authors Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro noted in an August 10, 1998, New Republic article, when the Employee Benefit Research Institute asked poll respondents in 1997 to directly compare the two, something not done in the 1994 poll, those 33 and younger chose Social Security over UFOs 63 to 33 percent. Among respondents of all ages, 71 percent chose Social Security, while just 26 percent chose UFOs.
CNN and PBS host Tucker Carlson cited the same 1994 poll on the December 16 edition of CNN's Crossfire, claiming: “More people believe in UFOs than they do in Social Security being there when they retire.”
From the January 1 edition of The Chris Matthews Show:
MATTHEWS: Younger people -- you've seen these polls where more young people in their twenties and thirties believe in UFOs than they believe the [Social Security] money's going to be there when they're 65.
MATTHEWS: Here's the urgency -- pretty soon you'll have two people working for one retiree. That means a person has to kick in 50 percent of somebody else's retirement check every day when they go to work.