A Comedy of Errors

Many politicians, the media, and even late night talk show hosts have been sounding the alarm about the future of Social Security. The Institute for Women's Policy Research has been monitoring and alerting news readers to their errors and misstatements. Follow the blog to see our report cards on media coverage of Social Security and stay in-the-know on the real facts and figures. Our latest post, by IWPR Study Director Cynthia Hess, counters Jay Leno's recent misinformed comments on the status of the Social Security system. His punch line did not include mention of the program's $2.6 trillion surplus.

Jay Leno drew some laughs in a recent telecast of The Tonight Show (Friday, January 28), but at the cost of spreading a myth about the Social Security program that isn't true. Leno said: "The Congressional Budget Office reports that Social Security will run a $45 billion deficit this year. They are $45 billion in the hole. Just establishing itself as the federal government's most successful program."

The $45 billion figure that Leno cites is misleading. It reflects the projected status at the end of 2011 of Social Security's combined Trust Fund (the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Trust Funds) without taking into account interest earned on the system's government issued bonds. The Congressional Budget Office projects that if this interest is included, the Social Security Trust Fund will run a surplus in 2011 of $72 billion.

Leno's comments echo a common theme in the mainstream media's coverage of Social Security: Social Security is in crisis. This theme ignores the fact that Social Security has a $2.6 trillion dollar surplus, which is expected to grow to $4.2 trillion by 2025. It also overlooks the fact that while Social Security is projected to have a long-term funding gap after 2037, it will still be able pay 75-78 percent of scheduled benefits after this time. These statistics do not point to a crisis in Social Security. And they do not challenge the truth that the American people well know: Social Security is the government's most successful program. It has been, and continues to be, the bedrock of economic security for the middle class.

It's not surprising that a comedian would not understand these facts about Social Security. What's disappointing is the number of politicians and members of the press who also misunderstand, and likewise come across as comedians.