The past 12 months witnessed innumerable attacks on social safety net programs in the United States. These attacks on American social insurance programs were hardly limited to Social Security -- all forms of social insurance, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability, came under fire from mainstream and conservative media alike, regardless of the programs' social or economic benefits. Media Matters compiled a list of the six types of attacks on the social safety net in 2013.
For more than three years, an influential study by two Harvard economists -- Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- provided a plausible foundation for attacks on spending of all types. The study fostered debt-paranoia among pundits otherwise interested in austere fiscal policies.
An April study by economists at the University of Massachusetts, however, concluded that the Reinhart-Rogoff data was error-filled in a way that selectively biased the results. A further review of the corrected data by economists at the University of Michigan found that the study should have been deemed inconclusive.
Despite losing its intellectual foundation in April, the deficit reduction talking point maintained a prominent position in fiscal policy discussion throughout the year.
Media calls for deficit reduction in the past year also regularly relied on budget reporting that lacked adequate context that federal budget deficits have declined precipitously from their 2009 peak. A Media Matters review of budget reporting done by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post revealed that a sizeable majority of articles provided budget items and program spending figures out of context. Further analysis concluded this misrepresentative reporting to be little more than a scare tactic, which bolstered calls for deeper cuts to the safety net for the sake of alleged fiscal responsibility.
This lack of context in media, and the effect it had in shifting the policy debate, eventually encouraged Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to issue a statement promising to correct problematic reporting standards going forward, but other outlets have yet to follow suit.
From a November 15 speech at the Freedom Center's 2013 Restoration Weekend:
From the October 25 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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In the week following the end of the 16-day government shutdown, major print media outlets shifted their attention to upcoming bipartisan budget negotiations. This coverage of budget priorities was far more likely to mention the need for deficit and debt reduction than economic growth and job creation, despite economists warning that growth is the more pressing concern.
Fox News analyst Karl Rove falsely attributed the increased Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries to a lack of fraud protection programs in the system. In fact Medicare, Medicaid and SSDI have fraud programs in place to detect, prevent, and recover money from the relatively few instances of documented fraud.
On the October 8 edition of Fox's The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly hosted Rove to explain the "big disability con" he believes explains the increase in SSDI recipients. Rove attributed the increased number of recipients to fraud as claimed by Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) investigation cited in a misleading segment on CBS' 60 Minutes. Rove claimed that more people apply for disability because "there are no fraud protections in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. None."
But fraud protections do exist in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a fact sheet detailing its program to prevent, detect, and report Medicare fraud. The fact sheet detailed laws in place that that punish Medicare fraud, which criminalizes the government being overcharged or knowingly defrauded by recipients, doctors, or third parties. It also provides information on partnerships with other government agencies and programs which help find and report fraud and abuse.
Fox hyped a discredited report on federal disability benefits to falsely claim that the Obama administration purposely made it easier to claim disability in order to keep the unemployment rate low. In fact, it is harder than ever to receive benefits as the percentage of approved claims has fallen since 2007, and experts agree disability is not connected to a decrease in the labor force.
National disability organizations have criticized a misleading CBS News 60 Minutes report on Social Security disability which relied on anecdotal evidence to deceptively portray the vital program as wasteful and unsustainable, despite the fact that award rates fell during the recession and that fraud is less than one percent of the program.
On October 6, 60 Minutes stoked fears that the Social Security Disability Insurance program is "ravaged by waste and fraud," relying on Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) bipartisan* investigation and anecdotal evidence to hype growth in the program while misleadingly claiming that it "could become the first government benefits program to run out of money."
In response, organizations that advocate for and support people with disabilities nationwide have criticized the report. Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities -- a coalition of approximately 100 national disability organizations -- told Media Matters the coverage was "sensational" and did a "tremendous disservice" to people with disabilities:
The recent 60 Minutes broadcast is just the latest in an array of sensational and misleading media reports that have perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the Social Security disability programs and the people they help. These media reports do a tremendous disservice to viewers as well as to people with disabilities. Any misuse of these vital programs is unacceptable; however it is unfortunate and disappointing when media reports mislead their viewers by painting entire programs with the brush of one or a few bad apples, without putting them in the context of the millions of individuals who receive benefits appropriately, and for whom they are a vital lifeline -- as well as the many disability advocates around the country who work hard to protect the rights of individuals with significant disabilities and serious illnesses who have been wrongly denied Social Security disability benefits.
Lisa Ekman, Director of Federal Policy at Health & Disability Advocates, said the organization was "extremely disappointed that 60 Minutes chose to air such a one-sided story based on anecdote and supposition ... Misleading media reports like the one on 60 Minutes distract from focusing on the real issue of helping American workers with and without disabilities achieve economic security."
The myths pushed by 60 Minutes have been repeatedly debunked by experts. The report admitted that the vast majority of people applying for benefits are denied, but ignored the fact that the majority of appeals are also denied, and that award rates have actually fallen during the economic recession. In April, the Wall Street Journal called the claim that federal disability benefits were to blame for people leaving the labor force "exaggerated," explaining that disability was in fact the least common reason individuals left the workforce.
As the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Dean Baker noted, the report also "completely ignored all the comments from experts in the field ... pointing out that fraud is in fact not rampant in the disability program." Indeed, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly found that fraud accounts for approximately one percent of all disability payments.
From the July 27 edition of Fox News' Cavuto on Business:
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Fox News falsely claimed California workers would be forced to participate in a proposed retirement savings program, ignoring the fact that workers would be able to opt out of the program at any time and that it is only open to workers who are not offered a retirement plan from their employers.
On the July 26 edition of Fox & Friends First, co-host Patti Ann Browne hyped criticisms that California is becoming a "nanny state," because of a proposal that she claimed would "force private sector workers to lose 3 percent from each paycheck," which would be deposited in a state fund and become available to workers at retirement, plus interest earnings.
But in reality no one will be forced to contribute to California's proposed Secure Choice Retirement Savings Plan. The program would only be for workers whose employers don't already sponsor a pension plan or a 401(k) for their retirement, allowing them to pay into an account that would pay benefits based on account contributions and investment returns. Any workers who don't want to participate can opt out.
Ben Harris, a former senior economist with the President's Council of Economic Advisers, wrote at the Tax Policy Center's TaxVox blog that the program is "entirely voluntary," and the use of automatic enrollment which workers can opt out of has the potential to "bring more than 6 million workers into the retirement saving universe":
California's plan shows exceptional promise. By utilizing automatic enrollment, which has been proven to bolster enrollment in private 401(k) plans, the plan could bring more than 6 million workers into the retirement saving universe. It takes advantage of a pooled investment strategy to lower administrative costs and ensure a balanced investment portfolio. The benefits would be progressively distributed. Workers take the accounts with them if they switch jobs. The plan is entirely self-funded with no extra cost to taxpayers. And it's entirely voluntary; workers who do not want to contribute may opt out.
Furthermore, the plan is reportedly likely to cost the California state government nothing, as it is designed to be privately run and managed. As the National Journal reported, most workers who will be eligible for the program make less than $46,420 a year, and rely heavily on Social Security in retirement. The program would offer this "underserved population" added security in retirement.
Economists and financial experts have praised the plan, such as Shlomo Benartzi, a behavioral finance expert and professor at UCLA, and Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago, who told NPR that automatic enrollment in the plan was "key" to its success.
Print media coverage of Social Security finances overwhelmingly favors reporting figures in raw numbers that lack relevant context, a trend that reflects cable and broadcast news coverage's push for reducing the cost of the program over strengthening benefits for recipients.
A Media Matters analysis finds that three major print sources -The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post - are more likely to report figures on Social Security revenue, spending, and funding gaps in terms of raw numbers that lack relevant context, such as previous years' figures. Fifty-nine percent of total mentions of Social Security's finances throughout the first half of 2013 relied strictly on raw numbers:
According to economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Dean Baker, the overreliance on reporting economic figures in raw numbers only serves to confuse and mislead readers:
It is understandable that people who want to promote confusion about the budget -- for example convincing people that all their tax dollars went to food stamps -- would support the current method of budget reporting. It is impossible to understand why people who want a well-informed public would not push for changing this archaic and absurd practice.
Throughout the first half of 2013, coverage on the finances of Social Security in the three major print outlets relied on reporting figures in raw numbers devoid of relevant context, such as previous years' figures, that could provide a more accurate picture of the program.
Media coverage of economic news has declined sharply over the past three months.
Media Matters research reveals a roughly 80 percent cumulative decline in segments dedicated to economic issues from April 1 through June 30. The week of the Boston Marathon bombings yielded zero news segments dedicated to economic coverage. Media diverted from its traditional lineup to cover the attack and ensuing manhunt. Even after accounting for this outlier in the data, economic coverage across the three major cable and broadcast networks displayed a strong negative trend.
According to a Gallup survey released June 28, Americans are most concerned about the economy when thinking about this nation's future. Economic issues remain at the forefront of American public interest polling, while media focus elsewhere.
American's concerns about the economy are not unfounded. Through the first quarter of 2013, the United States economy is on pace to produce $843 billion less than its ideal economic potential. This "output gap" is estimated to have cost the economy more than $4.6 trillion since the onset of the recession.
One major story consistently overlooked in the media is the pervasive negative effect of a weak economic recovery. Television pundits are often quick to pronounce that individual monthly job growth is insufficient but rarely discuss why those numbers are insufficient or what policy changes might be enacted to spur growth.
The primary factor holding back economic growth has been so-called "fiscal drag," or the economic policies out of Washington that emphasize austerity and deficit reduction ahead of stimulus and growth. Economists agree that fiscal austerity harms growth and has slowed economic recovery, but television news has largely ignored these expert opinions.
Despite the emergence of internet-based alternatives, television remains the primary news source for most Americans. According to a recent Gallup survey, 55 percent of Americans rely on television for current events. With finite time and resources to report developments, and with an industry-wide focus on alleged Washington "scandals," huge portions of the American public are not exposed to valuable economic coverage.
Broadcast and cable evening news coverage touched upon a variety of economic topics, including deficit reduction, economic growth, and entitlement reform throughout the second quarter of 2013. A Media Matters analysis shows that many segments lacked proper context or input from economists, while some topics went largely underreported.
Cable and television news outlets have overwhelmingly presented Social Security as a program that should be cut, giving little to no airtime for proposals that would instead strengthen the program for beneficiaries.
Media Matters research revealed significant media selection bias in the Social Security debate. Through the first six months of 2013, the three largest broadcast and cable news networks dedicated nearly 300 segments to discussions of Social Security. More than two-thirds of those segments framed the entire Social Security debate as a problem of long-term solvency and the national debt, which can only be solved through drastic cuts to beneficiaries.
Media's heavy focus on "fixing" the solvency of the program belies the fact that Social Security is funded for at least the next two decades.
On May 31, the Social Security Board of Trustees submitted its annual report to members of Congress and the White House, which concluded that Social Security "does not face an immediate crisis," as noted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' summary of the report. The report recommends that lawmakers prudently address long-term solvency concerns, but need not immediately adopt deep benefit cuts.
The Economic Policy Institute argued, contrary to most news coverage, that the challenges facing Social Security are "modest and manageable." Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman had a similar reaction to the latest Social Security report, noting "the system will be able to pay most of its scheduled benefits as far as the eye can see." Krugman also recognized the irrationality of arguments made by those who claim to want to save Social Security from eventual collapse:
The risk is that we might, at some point in the future, have to cut benefits; to avoid this risk of future benefit cuts, we are supposed to act pre-emptively by...cutting future benefits. What problem, exactly, are we solving here?
While media coverage of Social Security paints the debate of the program as one-sided, members of Congress have put forth plans that would expand the program through need-based benefit increases and tax reform.
The most prominent Social Security expansion proposal involves raising the payroll tax cap from its current $113,700 annual limit. The payroll tax is the primary source of revenue for Social Security. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed that placing a cap on taxable income causes low wage workers to pay higher effective rates than high wage workers. Eliminating the payroll tax cap would more evenly distribute payroll taxes to all workers while extending the life of the Social Security trust fund indefinitely.
In January 2013, the National Academy of Social Insurance conducted a comprehensive survey of American attitudes toward various Social Security reform proposals. The data revealed overwhelming support for lifting or raising the payroll tax cap, while respondents reported significant opposition to benefit cuts, including raising the retirement age and decreasing cost of living adjustments through chained CPI.
The Center for American Progress has also argued in favor of expanding Social Security through tax reform and increasing outlays to those beneficiaries who most rely on the program.
News segments devoted to the alleged demise of Social Security and other benefit programs consistently overlook these alternative proposals aimed at strengthening -- rather than cutting -- the program for beneficiaries.
Throughout the first half of 2013, broadcast and cable nightly news overwhelmingly discussed Social Security in an unbalanced and negative light by repeatedly insisting that the program is insolvent, must be cut, or poses a risk to long-term fiscal security.