Especially in the age of “alternative facts,” it’s really important for policy makers and especially journalists to use clear, transparent language. One area where that’s particularly germane right now is in regard to cutting Social Security and Medicare.
Though many policy makers want to cut these social insurance programs, they rarely say “cut.” Instead, because the programs are so highly valued by recipients, policy makers say “reform,” “overhaul,” “change,” “revamp,” and “fix” the program. In the vast majority of these formulations, these verbs are euphemisms for cuts, and it’s very important for journalists to call them out as such.
When NPR writes that Trump’s nominee for budget chief Mick Mulvaney “wants to overhaul these entitlement programs,” for example, do readers understand that “overhaul” means reduce promised benefits? I’m sure many do not.
There are many variants of this problem when it comes to writing about the fiscal condition of these social insurance programs. When policy makers talk about “raising the retirement age” as a way to improve solvency, which sounds pretty benign, it’s essential to make clear that this is a benefit cut, as Kathleen Romig points out here:
Raising the retirement age cuts benefits for all retirees, the cuts could be deep, and they would fall hardest on lower- and middle-income Americans — who rely heavily on their hard-earned Social Security and have not shared equally in recent life expectancy gains.
When policy makers or journalists talk about how Social Security and Medicare are “running out of money” or “going broke,” it should be pointed out that they are by no means going broke and that, even without any changes, both will be able to pay full benefits for over a decade (through 2028 for Medicare and through 2034 for Social Security) and continue to pay the vast majority of promised benefits (75 percent for Social Security and 87 percent for Medicare) thereafter.
To be clear, that is an unacceptable outcome that must be avoided, which leads me to my final point. As I’ve stressed, the implicit assumption in this debate almost always seems to be that reforming and fixing and overhauling mean cutting.
But why should that be the default? Raise your hand if you think America’s problem is that we have too much income and health care security in retirement. Anyone…anyone…Bueller??
Progressives increasingly believe that overhaul and reform should mean strengthening and expanding social insurance, and we’re not afraid to offer concrete ideas as to how to raise the needed resources to do so. (It also helps if people pay their employees’ payroll taxes.)
In the meantime, please stop the obfuscation. When policy makers are talking about cutting entitlements, call it like it is.