Out of sight from most Americans, powerful, organized, and determined moneyed interests have waged a more than three-decade-long, billionaire-funded campaign to dismantle Social Security. That campaign has enjoyed some success. And it is with us still.
It is not hard to see the successes of that campaign. Many Americans have been persuaded that Social Security is unaffordable, in crisis and must, at the very least, be scaled back. But while the campaign has succeeded in undermining confidence in the future of Social Security, it has failed to scale back Social Security's modest, but vital benefits, or, worse, radically transform Social Security, ending it as we know it. The good news is that over the last few years, the movement to expand, not cut, Social Security has been growing.
It is no accident that so many in the news media and political elite have bought the lies. The campaign is backed by hundreds of millions of dollars and a cottage industry of academics who have built their careers on criticizing Social Security. Together, those forces brought a veneer of respectability to claims that Social Security is unaffordable, in crisis, and spawning competition and conflict between generations.
Trudy Lieberman, a noted media critic and former New York University journalism professor, has observed that most media outlets have been reporting "only one side of this story using 'facts' that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others."
The machinations of the anti-Social Security campaign largely explain why media elites and both political parties lost an understanding of the conceptual underpinnings that have led to Social Security's popularity. Indeed, Social Security is often described as a problem rather than the solution that it is.
An Earned Right
Rather than define Social Security as an earned right to insurance purchased with our work and contributions, the critics imply that it is a government handout. The media and politicians use words and phrases like "entitlement," "makers versus takers," "deficit crisis" and "safety net" to spread and reinforce the message. The campaign's messaging, repeated over and over again, falsely asserts that Social Security was and remains a cause of federal deficits, even though Social Security does not add even a penny to the federal debt.
The truth is that Social Security has a $2.9 trillion surplus, which it invests. By law, it can only invest in Treasury bonds and other federal instruments backed by the full faith and credit of our government. It is a creditor to our federal government. That means Social Security has loaned our federal government $2.9 trillion. In turn, that means that our government has to borrow less from foreign governments and other investors to finance budget shortfalls. Even so, the false claim that Social Security is a government giveaway and a drain on the nation's resources has become a standard talking point of those who would dismantle the program.
The winds are shifting, however. President Joe Biden explicitly ran on expanding Social Security, as did Hillary Clinton in 2016. Expanding Social Security was a plank in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic platforms.
That position is in line with what surveys show the overwhelming majority of voters support—Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike. But that doesn't mean that any of us who want to see Social Security expanded, not cut, can let down our guard. Quite the opposite. The anti-Social Security campaigners know how to adjust their tactics to changing situations, how to fade away, how to blend in, and how and when to attack. If those of us who favor expanding, not cutting, Social Security are to be successful, we must remain vigilant and active. The billionaire campaign remains well-funded, well-organized, active, and strategic.
Going forward, we can expand Social Security, even in the face of distortions, misunderstandings, and outright lies promoted by moneyed interests. All of us who care about the economic security of our families have a stake in this cause. Everyone who cares about what kind of nation we leave for our children and grandchildren has a stake.
How to Win
How do we successfully build on the legacy that has been bequeathed to us, leaving it even better for the generations that follow? In short, how do we get our elected officials—who, after all, work for us—to vote to expand Social Security?
We already have some very dedicated leaders championing the cause of expansion, but we need more of them if expansion is to pass the Senate and get signed into law. Getting those now in office who disagree with us to change their minds and getting people elected who already do agree is tricky. All politicians these days claim to support Social Security. All say that their goal is to strengthen or save it. We cannot be satisfied with platitudes. We must demand clear support for expansion, with no cuts whatsoever.
Electing more champions and convincing others to change their minds won't be done without knowledge, commitment, perseverance and action. It won't be done without a vision backed by values that we all share.
It won't be done behind closed doors, without politics and policies that involve the American people and puts us first.
And, it won't be done without a fight. Nor will the fight be an easy one. There is too much money on the side of those who want to dismantle our Social Security system.
Fortunately, the American people—across demographics and the political spectrum—are unified in their opposition to cutting benefits and favor benefit expansions. They appropriately have a sense of contributing toward their own retirement and feel good about receiving Social Security benefits. They understand the importance of providing disability protection for themselves and their families, and the importance of protecting children and other family members if they die. Having witnessed losses in their extended families from unforeseen events—for example, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and now today's pandemic—they understand how quickly and efficiently Social Security responds to community and personal crises. They understand that benefits are not based on need, but rather have been earned through labor and contributions from salaries and wages. They understand how important Social Security is to their own and their family's economic security.
It is imperative to recognize that Social Security didn't just happen. Past generations of politicians and citizens created, improved, fought for and defended our Social Security system. They protected it, safeguarded it, expanded it and passed it forward, stronger than before, as a legacy to all of us, young and old alike. Now it is our turn.
The debate over the future of Social Security is most fundamentally a debate about decency and fairness. It is a debate about our values. In the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, it's not about "the creation of new and strange values," but, as he explained 86 years ago: "It is rather the finding of the way once more to known, but to some degree forgotten, ideals and values. If the means and details are in some instances new, the objectives are as permanent as human nature. Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation first."
Among these values that now underlie the fight over Social Security is compassion for and responsibility to care for our families, our neighbors and ourselves. The recognition that Social Security is part of our compensation for our hard work and contributions is another value this fight over Social Security is about.
Still another value the fight is about is recognition of Social Security's conservative, prudent management of our money. Of all federal programs, Social Security and Medicare are the most closely monitored. Social Security is extremely conservatively financed and must balance its budget without any borrowing whatsoever. Yet this important value is disregarded by our politicians, who tend to lump it together with all other federal spending.
This is not a time for compromising the economic well-being of the middle class and poor, not when income and wealth inequality are higher than they have ever been in the past 50 years. Not when the worldwide pandemic has exacerbated that income and wealth inequality.
This is not a time to accept cuts to our Social Security as "reasonable compromise," as little "tweaks" that will do no lasting harm. Rather, this is the time for our elected leaders to expand Social Security, as the overwhelming majority of Americans who elected them want.
It is a time to successfully build on the legacy that has been bequeathed to us, leaving it even better for the generations that follow. At base, this is about the kind of nation we want for ourselves, our children, and their children. Although couched largely in terms of economics, the debate over the future of Social Security is most fundamentally a debate about the role of government, about all of us working together, and about the societal values the nation seeks to achieve through Social Security for today's and tomorrow's generations.
Nancy Altman, a lawyer, and Eric Kingson, a Syracuse University professor of social work, co-founded Social Security Works, a non-profit organization working to protect and expand Social Security. This article is adapted from their new book Social Security Works for Everyone!, published by The New Press, with a foreword by David Cay Johnston, DCReport editor-in-chief.