If it's in the News, it's in our Polls. Public opinion polling since 2003.


Social Security: Every Politician's Toy?

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Social Security is a glossy piece of paper on which nearly every politician wants to finger-paint an agenda. But Social Security has no need of ornament. It is a very grown-up program. Put some other toy into the political playpen.

Come January, for the first time since 1975, Social Security payments will not be ratcheted upward for inflation. The reason is simple: no inflation.

But now President Barack Obama is pushing Congress to send every senior a $250 check to compensate for ... for ... for what? For the fact that some Social Security recipients expect a "raise" every year, whether or not it is warranted? They saw a 6 percent hike in their benefits last year. But that was not a "raise." It was a cost-of-living adjustment to maintain (not increase) the buying power of their monthly checks.

If the president wants to hand out checks to stimulate the economy, why make them age-specific? Money sent to low-income people, whether young or old, would make far more sense. And the still better stimulus is government spending on roads and other worthy projects. That money gets shot right into the economy.

Sending an extra check to Social Security beneficiaries is also about pandering to older voters. But politicians should first ask themselves, "How many other Americans got 6 percent 'raises' last year?"

The plan is foolish and reckless -- and has drawn bipartisan support. These taxes pay for Social Security and Medicare. Cutting payroll taxes puts those programs in jeopardy, which is why some liberal economists, such as Robert Reich, should hang their heads in shame for wanting to monkey with them.

On the right, meanwhile, there is growing affection for the idea. First off, many conservatives hold that cutting taxes solves all problems. (That did wonders for the deficit, didn't it.) Secondly, fooling with payroll taxes could undermine the public's faith in Social Security by lending ammo to the false charge that the program's trust fund is all a fraud.

You see, the Social Security taxes now paid by workers and their employers support current beneficiaries. What's left over goes into the trust fund to be tapped in future years, when a surge in retirees puts pressure on the program. It's been a conservative talking point that the Social Security trust fund doesn't exist; the government has spent the money.

Not quite. The Treasury bonds in the trust fund are real IOUs representing real money taken from real workers for more than 25 years. No matter what the federal government did with that borrowed money, it still has to pay it back.

Make the argument, if you must, that the Treasuries sitting in the trust fund's file cabinets are not like the super-safe government securities traded around the world -- that the Treasury doesn't have to make good on them. The truth is that these special Treasury bonds are different, but they still cannot be defaulted upon without a vote by Congress.

So here's an assignment for anyone who calls the trust fund's Treasuries "worthless pieces of paper": Find me one member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, who vows to vote against Washington's promise to honor them. I'll buy lunch.

According to the Social Security trustees' latest report, payroll taxes will cover all of the retirees' promised benefits until 2016. After that, the trust fund can make up for any shortfall until 2039. That is 30 years from now. We can worry about Social Security's finances in 20 years.

You know what children with paint want to do with a clean sheet of paper? They want to mess it up. Social Security is a clean program. Let's keep it that way.



See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

Rasmussen Reports is a media company specializing in the collection, publication and distribution of public opinion information.

We conduct public opinion polls on a variety of topics to inform our audience on events in the news and other topics of interest. To ensure editorial control and independence, we pay for the polls ourselves and generate revenue through the sale of subscriptions, sponsorships, and advertising. Nightly polling on politics, business and lifestyle topics provides the content to update the Rasmussen Reports web site many times each day. If it's in the news, it's in our polls. Additionally, the data drives a daily update newsletter and various media outlets across the country.

Some information, including the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll and commentaries are available for free to the general public. Subscriptions are available for $4.95 a month or 34.95 a year that provide subscribers with exclusive access to more than 20 stories per week on upcoming elections, consumer confidence, and issues that affect us all. For those who are really into the numbers, Platinum Members can review demographic crosstabs and a full history of our data.

To learn more about our methodology, click here.