George Graham

No, Ms. Raddatz, Social Security is Not “Going Broke”

I was startled to hear debate moderator Martha Raddatz declare as a prelude to a debate question on Wednesday night that “both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process.”  And I was surprised that Joe Biden let the lie stand.

I was not surprised that Paul Ryan declared: “Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts.” He has long relied on that myth to promote his plan to privatize the programs.

Joe Biden used his response time to explain the difference between President Obama’s approach and the Romney-Ryan plan. And I have to agree that exposing the snake-in-the-grass Republican plot to destroy the social safety net was more important than setting the record straight.

But the record has to be set straight.

So I was reassured to read an explanation this morning by Pat Garofalo in ThinkProgress, which was distributed by Reader Supported News. Garofalo took Ms. Raddatz to task for the way she framed the question. And rightfully so.

Ms. Raddatz is a good reporter but her field is foreign affairs, not government finance. And she obviously doesn’t understand the intricacies of the Social Security program (few people do).

I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on the subject , but I know that we retirees have contributed to Social Security all of our working lives and we have earned the monthly stipend we get in our twilight years. So I would appreciate it if politicians stopped treating the program like some kind of welfare.

Social Security is basically an insurance program run by the government. Revenue from our premiums is supposed to be used to buy Treasury bonds. As I understand it, when the pundits talk about Uncle Sam’s $15 trillion debt, a big chunk of that is owed to the Social Security program.

I have to admit that I don’t know exactly how those budget wizards in Washington fiddled with the Social Security money. I believe they spent some of it instead of investing it as they were supposed to. It seems they were depending on premiums from succeeding generations to pay existing retirees. Now, as the baby boomers retire, the money coming in isn’t enough to compensate for the huge surge in the number of retirees.

(Any Social Security wonks reading this, please help me out by adding a comment explaining how the system works. Thanks.)

Even so, as Garofalo points out, Social Security has enough in its piggy bank to “pay full benefits until 2037, and nearly full benefits for years after that, even if literally nothing is done to change the program.”

And, if my information is accurate, it would be a simple matter to increase the amount of money funding the program. As it is now, we only pay premiums on the first $100,000 a year of our income (it’s referred to as a “payroll tax” by those who seem to delight in confusing us). Lift the cap, and all kinds of new money would pour in.

As for that line about “taking a larger share of the budget in the process,” Ms.  Raddatz should have known that Social Security is statutorily barred from adding to the deficit. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid  points out:

Social Security has not added a single penny, not a dime, a nickel, a dollar to the budget problems we have. Never has. And for the next 30 years, it won’t do that.

But the Republicans have fought against Social Security from the beginning, and they will say anything to convince the American public the program has to go.

Ryan has been advocating privatization of Social Security for decades, and proposes replacing Medicare with a voucher program that would oblige retirees to shop around for their own health insurance (with a lot less help from Uncle Sam). Ryan is using the Big Lie that these programs are going broke to frighten the public into compliance with his scheme.

Ms. Raddatz did a good job on Wednesday. She was equally tough on both debaters. It’s a shame that she unwittingly fell into the Romney-Ryan trap by misrepresenting the truth in her question on Social Security and Medicare.

Click here to read Garofalo’s piece.

Click here for “a layman’s guide” to Social Security.


About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for