In 1982, at the first meeting of the so-called Greenspan Commission, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "We are all entitled to our own opinion, but not to our own set of facts." Alan Simpson, the former Republican Senator from Wyoming and current co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, certainly took the first part of Moynihan's adage to heart. No doubt about it, Simpson has a strong opinion - he wants to cut Social Security. Problem is, he is using his own personal "facts" to justify his position.
Making the rounds on the internet is an exchange between Simpson and Alex Lawson, the Communications Director of Social Security Works. There are so many falsehoods in what Simpson said, it's hard to know what to choose, but here are some highlights.
Simpson: "They never dreamed that the life expectancy [would go] from 57 years of age to 78 or 75 or whatever. Who would dream that? No one. They just died. People worked. Social Security was never a retirement. It was setup to take care of poor guys in the Depression who lost their butts, who were digging ditches, and it was to give them 43% of their wages ... when they got out ... and that's what it was. It was never a retirement. It was an income supplement."
The facts: When Social Security was enacted, many people died of childhood diseases, never making it to adulthood and never paying a penny of Social Security. Most people who made it to adulthood, made it to age 65 and beyond. The life expectancy in 1940 for those who made it to age 65 was 77.7 for men and 79.7 for women. And life expectancy at birth in 1940 was 69.6 for males and 75.5 for females - nowhere near the misinformation and exaggerated claims Simpson promotes to bolster his argument that Social Security should be cut!!
And what about them never dreaming how the population would age? Robert J. Myers, who was an actuary with FDR's Committee on Economic Security, which developed Social Security, and who then worked on Social Security into his 90's, who died just a few months ago, and whom many of us knew, was the one to crunch the numbers. Not only did he know that people would be living longer in the future, he forecast it with great accuracy. In 1934, he projected that in 2000, 12.7 percent of the population would be age 65 or older. According to the 2000 Census figures, the percentage of those aged 65 and older was 12.4 percent of the population.
Social Security was enacted during the Depression but it was never intended to "take care of poor guys in the Depression," as Simpson falsely claims. Means-tested welfare, which paid benefits immediately, was enacted for that purpose. Because Social Security is insurance and people have to pay in to become insured, the 1935 statute didn't provide for any benefits to be paid until 1942!
Simpson, "They never knew there was a baby boom in '83."
What a frighteningly ignorant claim from someone entrusted to make national policy as co-chair of the President's Fiscal Commission. The first baby boomer was born on January 1, 1946. Seventy-six million births later, the last baby boomer was born on December 31, 1964. The Social Security Administration employs over 40 actuaries, whose job is to watch trends such as birth rates. They were certainly aware of the baby boomers as they were arriving!
Putting aside his years of trying to privatize and cut Social Security, Mr. Simpson appears to have so little command of the basic facts about Social Security that it is doubtful that he realizes that the average benefit for all beneficiaries is just $13,000, $14,000 for retirees, and that claims for early retirement benefits spiked last year because of the recession. What shameful ignorance he displays, when for many years he has accused older Americans, and the organizations representing them, of being "greedy" because they do not want to see their or their children's and grandchildren's benefits cut.
SIMPSON: We're really working on solvency... the key is solvency
LAWSON: What about adequacy? Are you focusing on adequacy as well?
SIMPSON: Where do you come up with all the crap you come up with?
SIMPSON: "We're trying to take care of the lesser people in society and do that in a way without getting into all the flashwords you love dig up, like cutting Social Security, which is bullshit.
This is the man with responsibility for deciding Social Security policy for this country? This is not a game. Social Security lifts 1.3 million children out of poverty, provides half or more of the income to 2/3rds of seniors, and without which 55 percent of disabled workers and their families would have incomes below the poverty line.
Moreover, Social Security does not and cannot contribute to the federal deficit. Not a penny. By law it may not borrow. There's a manageable financing problem. There are also important changes that should be made to further strengthen protections for particularly vulnerable groups. Indeed, to strengthen Social Security, both solvency and adequacy must be addressed. But not with the hatchet Simspon would take out while falsely claiming the federal deficit requires unwarranted changes in Social Security. Rather, these changes should be made, thoughtfully and deliberatively, by Congress and the Congressional committees that have jurisdiction over Social Security, not by Simpson.
Simpson should step aside and let those with compassion and knowledge take stewardship over Social Security, the nation's most successful domestic program, created by Democrats and supported by many across the political spectrum who bothered to learn the facts.
The authors, Nancy Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security, and Eric Kingson, Professor of Social Work at Syracuse University, and are Co-Directors of Social Security Works. The authors served as staff for the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform.