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OPINION: Bernie Sanders Doesn't Quite Get It on Social Security

Created: 14 October, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
4 min read


Sen. Bernie Sanders repeats Democratic talking points on Social Security about as frequently as anyone. He is unfortunately wrong more frequently than anyone.

Today, FactCheck.Org is questioning a number of his positions (“Sanders Misleads on Social Security”, “FactChecking the Democratic Debate”.)

His statements are almost never 100% true. Every statement has a word that is not consistent with the English language. Every number hides a more realistic number. America needs an honest conversation about Social Security, not more sound bites.

It is fair to say that he is a politician. It is possible to argue that his view is more accurate than another politician. It is possible to say that he is condensing his point so that he can speak to a wider audience. The one thing that you can’t say is that he entirely honest about Social Security.

Everyone makes mistakes. Sander’s mistakes stand-out because they run in the same direction. They consistently overstate the system’s soundness. They overstate the system’s past and future. They overstate the system’s success. On balance, his mistakes do not appear to be random.

Our friends at OccupyDemocratics recently released a video that showcases Sanders on Social Security. In a space of three minutes, he makes six quotes that are close to true, but nothing is 100 percent accurate. Every word is slightly bent, and every fact is missing its fact. If you are going to listen to Sanders, you really need to ask what the meaning of the word “Is” is.

Six staples of Sanders’ argument that are not quite true.

  • Social Security is not going brokeThe statement is true of course. Social Security hasn’t completely run out of money, nor will it as long as the system gets dedicated use of payroll taxes. The problem is that no one seriously claims Social Security is going “broke.” The critics say that it is going “insolvent” – mind you the trustees who are responsible for the safety and soundness of the system agree.
  • Social Security has a surplus of 2.76 trillion dollarsAgain, the statement is true, but only half true. Sanders is playing a game of left pocket, right pocket, in which the left pocket holds the cash, and the right contains obligations that outweigh the cash by 10 fold. Senator Sanders is pointing to the pocket of cash without telling you that the $2.76 trillion surplus is a reserve against nearly $30 trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities.  Yes Social Security is going insolvent.
  • “Social Security can pay out benefits to every eligible American for the next 19 years”19 years sounds like a long time, but it wasn’t true. At the time of his statement, the latest Trustees Report clearly showed that the Social Security Trust Fund had sufficient reserves to give Social Security roughly a 50/50 chance of paying scheduled benefits over 18 years. On December 15, 2014, the projection from the Social Security Administration was closer to 18 years. The Congressional Budget Office projected the exhaustion point was 15 years. While these figures may sound close, Sanders omits the crucial words – “provided that the economy cooperates.”
  • “Social Security has not contributed one nickel to our deficit”Technically, this is not true. Senator Sanders actually means that Social Security is not “counted” toward the on-budget measure of the deficit. That does not mean that Social Security did not contribute to the national deficit. The payroll tax holiday, for example, created roughly $200 billion in deficit spending between 2011 and 2012. (For more on the meaning of the word “deficit,” see Does Social Security Impact the Federal Deficit)
  • “Social Security is independently funded. It does not receive funding from the federal treasury”Not true. Legally, Social Security is not independently funded. It receives subsidies from the general fund. By law, P.L 98-21 to be specific, the federal treasury transfers tens of billions of dollars from the general fund to Social Security, mainly the revenue collected on the taxation of benefits. This material is documented in every trustees report.
  • “Social Security has paid out every nickel owed to every eligible beneficiary”The only reason that Social Security has paid out every nickel that it owes is because Social Security can lower what it owes. In 1983, the system lowered what it owed to millions of Americans. The 1977 amendments created the Notch Babies who believe that they were cheated out of their benefits. Social Security has paid out every nickel that Congress agreed to pay.

Editor's note: This article originally published on FedSmith.com on October 13, 2015, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.

Photo Credit: Juli Hansen / Shutterstock.com