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The Psychology of Entitlements

Let's call Social Security what it is — a welfare program.

2:28 PM, Apr 9, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Robert Samuelson has a strong column today on how one of the biggest obstacles to Social Security reform might be psychological. Though FDR's original vision for the program was a "contributory pension plan" and most Americans are still under the the impression that this is what it is, the reality is that it's structured much more like a welfare program:

Millions of Americans believe (falsely) that their payroll taxes have been segregated to pay for their benefits and that, therefore, they "earned" these benefits. To reduce them would be to take something that is rightfully theirs. Indeed, Roosevelt -- believing he had created a contributory program -- said exactly that:

"We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions. ... No damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program."

What we have is a vast welfare program grafted onto the rhetoric and psychology of a contributory pension. The result is entitlement. Unsurprisingly, AARP's advertising slogan is "You've earned a say" on Social Security. The trouble is that contributions weren't saved. They went to past beneficiaries. The $2.6 trillion in the Social Security trust fund at year-end 2010 sounds like a lot but equals slightly more than three years of benefits.

Given that U.S. demographics are threatening the viability of the Social Security, inevitably the program is going to have to change. So what leader is willing to lean into the strike zone and expend their precious political capital explaining to Americans that, actually, they haven't quite "earned" their Social Security so they can better understand why the program needs to be reformed?

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