It’s Time to Stop Fearmongering About Social Security’s Demise

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

(The opinions expressed in guest op-eds are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of

According to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Republicans are “plotting to threaten a catastrophic economic meltdown in order to force wildly unpopular cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”


Plotting? Oh my!

As of this morning, there are no less than four articles claiming that the GOP will “gut,” “eliminate,” or destroy Social Security, all tied to random statements made by leaders of the Republican Party. These articles exist to generate fear, and serve only to waste precious time needed for the serious discussion about the gap between what Social Security has promised and what it expects to pay.

What eludes Pelosi and the rest of those selling fear is: Social Security is threatening to cut itself. In just 12 years, Social Security will deliver life-changing benefit reductions to seniors across the nation. That isn’t a worst-case scenario. Those results are what we should expect in a relatively robust economy.

While that may sound worrisome, it gets worse. The only fact on which all experts agree is that the longer we wait, the harder it gets. The obvious corollary is the more time we waste on a frivolous political sideshow, the more pain we will experience in our old age.

Unfortunately, voters chose more pain at every turn.

While fear dominates the news about Social Security, there is nothing to suggest that the GOP plans to “eliminate” Social Security, or even change Social Security in the near future.


Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) does not have a plan to sunset Social Security or Medicare in five years. He has a plan that Congress will do its job. The fact is that his plan might not work out. Congress might forget about these programs, or voters might turn against them and elect representatives that would end these programs. These are unlikely possibilities, not a plan.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has said that he would like Congress to have more oversight over these programs. The fact is that Congress has the power now to control the costs of “non-discretionary budget items.” Congress chooses every year not to exercise that power, and there is no reason to believe that changing budget rules will make Congress more concerned about deficits within the budget or the prospects of a program on which millions rely.

Johnson’s idea is terrible, but for very different and unexamined reasons. The average retirement coverage of Social Security lasts around 19 years. No sensible retiree wants to depend upon the annual application of duct tape and bailing wire by politicians with a two-year time horizon to their lifeline.

Instead of a reasoned discussion about the merits of his idea, voters are inundated with fear about nonexistent GOP plans to put Social Security on the “chopping block.”


At the same time, I have grave reservations about the GOP’s commitment to the program and understanding of the problem. For all of the rhetoric about strengthening Social Security, the GOP seems to be very good at one thing: doing nothing.

Party leaders loosely talk about protecting Social Security for those currently collecting without explaining how. At this point, people who are 75 and younger expect to outlive the system’s ability to pay scheduled benefits. Protecting benefits for existing retirees implies that they plan on raising taxes — so what taxes are going up?

The last time that the GOP produced a plan to reform Social Security was December of 2016, mere weeks before the final recess of the 114th Congress. It was introduced by a retiring congressman who didn’t have to worry about re-election.

His plan was to get younger voters to accept draconian reductions of benefits so that existing retirees weren’t inconvenienced by smaller paychecks. Specifically, the average retiree 20 years from now would experience a 30 percent reduction of benefits, which would accelerate as the senior ages.

As unpleasant as that prospect might sound to someone who is 45, the fact is that this plan is no longer relevant because the size of the problem has grown by more than 50 percent. Thus, the Republican plan appears to be to convince younger voters to accept benefit cuts that are vastly larger than what they will experience by doing nothing. Good luck with that strategy.


In total, the Democrats may benefit politically from this calculus of fear, but the people who have to live with the consequences will not.

The disengaged dialogue about the program’s future is little more than an invitation to a programmatic drift to crisis, where no one wins.

Brenton Smith ([email protected]) is a policy adviser at The Heartland Institute, with work appearing in nationally recognized publications including Barron’s, Forbes, MarketWatch, The Hill, USA Today, and more.


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