One of the persistent myths about Social Security is that benefit cuts could be done in a way that would only affect the richest Americans. So let us clarify the issue for those who are confused. Cuts that would have any meaningful impact on Social Security’s finances will necessarily fall on the middle class. Period.
We hear it all the time from prominent people, of both the earnest and disingenuous variety. “Why should Warren Buffet get Social Security benefits”? They ask. Here is the line almost verbatim from GOP presidential hopeful Gov. Mitch Daniels in an interview with New York Times columnist David Leonhardt last week (I’ll let you decide whether he is one of the myth’s earnest or disingenuous proponents):
“I always say, ‘Why do we send a pension check to Warren Buffett?’”
Never mind for a moment that conservatives never seem able to summon equally populist sentiments when it comes to the tax cuts Buffett receives (they let Buffett do that himself).
Most Social Security advocates respond to the “only-cuts-for-the-rich” myth by arguing that such cuts, though harmless in themselves, are a slippery slope to bigger cuts, because they will turn the wealthy against the program. They are right. Social Security’s universality is what has allowed it to stay in good graces while support for other government programs has dropped off significantly.
And it is indeed a fundamental feature of the program. Social Security is social insurance, not welfare. People receive benefits in relation to what they pay in. For those who do not desperately need it, Social Security is a convenience that they have paid to receive. We would not insist that rich people pay fire insurance premiums, and then be forced to pay out-of-pocket when a fire engulfs their home, would we?
But there is a much simpler point to be made. Even if we were prepared to endure the damage that cuts for the rich would inflict on the program, doing so would not shore up Social Security’s finances. There is not enough money in the Social Security checks of the richest men in the country to buy the government an armored Humvee, let alone fill Social Security’s $700 billion shortfall. This is true first and foremost because Social Security benefits are already capped, and have been from the very beginning. So even if you’re a billionaire, your Social Security benefits are calculated on a wage base of $106,800. Whether you make $1 billion a year or $200,000, if you retire today at age 70 you will only be entitled to a $27,000 annual benefit from Social Security (in 2010 dollars, not adjusted for inflation).
Even if that $27,000 payment seems excessive to you, there are very few people in the country that are eligible for benefits that large, and the vast majority of them have earnings closer to the $106,800 cap. Cutting the benefits for people making between $100,000 and $200,000 is a much dicier subject. Most of these people consider themselves middle class, and do not exactly have money to throw around. Here the slippery slope argument is much more feasible. Upper middle income earners would probably resent paying the same amount into the program and receiving significant reduction in the returns they receive when they retire, become disabled or die.
Worse still, no more than 10% of the country earns upwards of $100,000. Cutting the top 10% of American workers’ benefits by as much as half would still not generate nearly the amount of cash needed to shore up Social Security’s finances. And if cutting benefits for these “rich” people, using our extremely broad definition, does not enable Social Security to pay full benefits for the next 75 years than there is really no reason to do it.
Besides, it is not as if the government is twisting people’s arms to accept these benefits. Anyone can voluntarily return their benefits to the Social Security Trust Fund. Only no one seems to be in a rush to do it.
All of which leaves conservatives who hide behind the “only-cuts-for-the-rich” myth in a difficult position. You can either be in favor of “only-cuts-for-the-rich” or in favor of cutting Social Security in order to avoid inevitable cuts later on, but not both.
In reality, conservatives are not particularly concerned with either the program’s solvency or its fairness. They would like to phase out Social Security altogether, and if they can’t do that, they’ll roll it back for all but the poorest. But they know that is a political non-starter. So they take the progressive high ground, righteously opposing benefits for the likes of Warren Buffett, all while issuing proposals that would gut benefits for nearly everyone—and then hope that nobody is doing the math.