What we should talk about when we talk about Social Security


That’s the original word in the Raymond Carver short story collection paraphrased in this blog title, and in a perfect world, that’s all we’d need to say: Americans love Social Security because it takes care of the people they love.

But this is Washington, so that won’t cut it. Fortunately, our friends at Social Security Works have hired some smart people to think about why we’re losing the messaging war on Social Security, despite the program’s popularity and the fact that transparently partisan attacks (“Ponzi scheme”) haven’t found much traction.

What has gotten traction: a decades-long and lavishly-funded campaign to convince younger workers that Social Security won’t be there when they retire, which opens the door to all sorts of shenanigans. Many Washington insiders, from across the political spectrum, have bought into the idea that Social Security is on an unsustainable course, and a willingness to slash benefits has become a “badge of fiscal seriousness” inside the Beltway, as Paul Krugman has noted.

Once the myth that Social Security is in trouble has taken root, attempts to dispel it with facts can inadvertently reinforce it, because the issue becomes technical and confusing, and people tend to assume that if you’re arguing about a problem, then it must exist. (If-there’s-smoke-there-must-be-fire logic isn’t always wrong, by the way: The Federal Reserve’s repeated attempts to pooh-pooh the existence of housing and stock bubbles should have put people on alert long before the bubbles burst in 2007.)

The good news, as John Neffinger of KNP Communications explained at a recent meeting of Social Security advocates, is that positive messages about Social Security can stick if presented the right way and in the right order.

Here are some DOs and DON’Ts, according to Neffinger:

  • DON’T fight on their terrain (“Social Security isn’t going broke”).
  • DO focus on the fact that Social Security is the only secure pillar of our retirement system (“If the middle class can’t count on Social Security in their retirement years, what can it count on? Not home equity, or 401(k)s or IRAs…”). In this vein, push for strengthening the program, as Michael Hiltzik does in this recent Los Angeles Times article.
  • DO explain attacks on Social Security as attempts to dismantle the system for private gain (“Wall Street stands to make billions from managing more private accounts”) or political ideology (“They take their marching orders from someone who wants to shrink government to the size that they can drown it in a bathtub”).
  • DO address the solvency issue by showing that simple adjustments can maintain the system (“Scrap the cap, so everyone pays the same percentage of their income in payroll tax”).
  • But DON’T lead with the last two points, or you risk sounding partisan and reinforcing the myth that Social Security is in crisis.

The beauty of this framework, at least in theory, is that it avoids talking points that can backfire, like accusing Congress of raiding Social Security. It also sidesteps confusing topics like the trust fund that are hard to explain in a sound bite.

But the Economic Policy Institute is supposed to provide answers to questions like, “What happens when the trust fund runs out?” and, “Does Social Security contribute to the federal deficit?” It’s hard to avoid these topics entirely. If there’s a lesson here for us wonks, it’s that it’s crucial to lead with how critical Social Security is to our retirement security and to emphasize how dumb it would be to take an axe to what for many people is the last leg of what was once supposed to be—along with employer pensions and savings—a three-legged retirement stool.

The messaging discussion also served as a reminder that another thing we have going for us, in addition to Social Security’s enduring popularity, is that people have really soured on 401(k)s. Back when the anti-Social Security campaign was in its infancy, the other main conservative strategy was to convince younger workers that Social Security was a bad investment compared to private accounts. You don’t hear that much anymore.

Unfortunately, back-door privatization is still alive and well. Even among centrists (including, we fear, many in the Obama administration), it has become commonplace to treat Social Security cuts as unavoidable while emphasizing the need to expand tax-favored savings in individual accounts. Why can we afford one and not the other (especially since two-thirds of tax breaks for 401(k)s and IRAs go to the top 20 percent of taxpayers and high fees erode savings in these accounts)?

This brings me to the issue of affordability. I asked Neffinger if affordability, like solvency, was a topic to avoid when possible, even though the facts are on our side. He said the jury’s still out on that one. My guess is it’s a strong point, because budget hawks do everything possible to avoid showing that Social Security costs are leveling off rather than escalating (hence a tendency—even at the officially non-partisan Congressional Budget Office—to lump Social Security costs in with rising Medicare costs).

Social Security costs will bump up from around 5 percent to 6 percent of GDP before leveling off, but that’s a bargain when you consider that over 90 percent of seniors at some point receive Social Security and these benefits provide two-thirds of the income of beneficiaries 65 and older. That’s not counting the nearly one-third of beneficiaries—disabled workers and family members receiving survivor or spousal benefits—who are under 65.