When Texas Governor Rick Perry in the Republican debate at the President Reagan Library described Social Security as a “Ponzi Scheme”; Perry hoped the media would hyper-ventilate and scream that his political career was over. Back in 1982, Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill legendarily damaged the President’s and the Republican’s popularity by spinning that Reagan’s efforts to return Social Security to solvency was an effort to destroy the program. Perry understands that Social Security still remains popular; but he intends to use as a wedge issue against Democrats the fact that few Americans are willing to pay more taxes make the program solvent and that younger voters believe they will never receive the benefits they are paying for.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes a Ponzi scheme as “an investment swindle in which some early investors are paid off with money put up by later ones in order to encourage more and bigger risks.” Social Security began collecting taxes in 1937 and began in 1940 to pay their first benefit recipient, Ida May Fuller. Ms. Fuller worked for three years under the Social Security program before she retired. The Social Security taxes on her salary were $24.75; her initial monthly check was $22.54; and she lived to collect $22,888.92. Essentially, Ms. Fuller earned a spectacular 925% return on her investment.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was quoted by his Labor Secretary Francis Perkins as trying to make sure Social Security would not be a swindle to future generations:
“Ah, but this is the same old dole by another name. It is almost dishonest to build up an accumulated deficit for the Congress of the United States to meet in 1980. We can’t see the United States short in 1980 any more than in 1935.”
Prior to the 1970s, the Social Security program was fairly well funded; because it took a highly visible Act of Congress to change the payments. But in 1972 Republican President Richard Nixon increased benefits by 20% and created a formula to automatically adjust Social Security payments by a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) tied to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 more than tripled the Social Security tax on wages; but price inflation continued to drive COLA payments up faster than the taxes on wages.
When President Reagan tried to reinstate the original COLA calculation in 1982 he was pummeled by Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, who famously told the press that trying to change Social Security was the political equivalent of asking for the instant death of touching the “third rail” of an electric train. Republicans lost 26 Congressional seats in the following midterm elections, as the Democrats made preservation of Social Security the centerpiece of their campaign slogan: “It’s not fair … It’s Republican”.
In 1995, the Senate Finance Committee appointed a commission to study the amended CPI’s effect on Social Security solvency. The commission determined that the COLA calculation introduced in the 1970s overestimated the cost of living calculation envisioned by FDR by a value approximately 1.2% per year; but Congress took no action. Through 2011, the COLA has averaged 3.73%. Over the last 36 years the COLA resulted in benefit payments that were 47% above higher than the original plan supported by Roosevelt. Had the COLA not been passed into law the current $2.5 trillion Social Security Trust Fund would be three times larger and the program would solvent, instead of currently $5.4 trillion under-funded.
Perry understands that for the last twenty-six years no Republican Presidential candidate has been willing to address the unsustainability of the Social Security funding for fear of being pummeled by Democrats. But recent Rasmussen polling indicates that although Social Security remains a popular with a 73% approval; only 30% of likely U.S. voters favor raising taxes to make sure the Social Security and Medicare trust funds have enough money to pay all promised benefits. Rasmussen determined that only “26% of voters under 40 believe it’s even Somewhat Likely they will receive all of their promised Social Security benefits. That includes only 5% who say it’s Very Likely those benefits will be paid.”
The key to President Obama’s election victory in 2008 was the 22% voter preference he enjoyed in under 30 voters. Perry’s denigrating of Social of Security as a Ponzi scheme may turn out to be a powerful wedge issue that may turn younger voters away from Obama this fall.
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