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Alan Simpson is more wrong than ever on Social Security

May 26, 2012|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Former Sen. Alan Simpson can't help showing how little he knows about Social Security.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson can't help showing how little he knows about… (Harry Hamburg / Associated…)

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has long been the go-to guy for obnoxiously know-nothing takes on Social Security, this week uncorked yet another spectacularly misinformed "factoid" about the program's history.

In a letter to Max Richtman, a former Senate staffer who now heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, Simpson asserted that Social Security's creators did not design it to be a retirement program. The letter dated Friday was obtained and made public by ABC News.

Simpson wrote in his unbelieveably rude and ignorant letter to Richtman: "You know damn well that the system was never created as a 'retirement' -- it was an 'income supplement' to take care of folks working in CCC camps and who lost everything in the Great Depression."

It's hard to know what to think of Simpson's version of history, but the term "sheer fantasy" comes to mind. Here are the facts:

Social Security was explicitly designed as a retirement program. There's no question about it, as its drafters, including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and Edwin Witte, head of the Committee on Economic Security appointed by President Roosevelt in 1934, explained to Congress. Here's how Witte put it during two days of testimony, which can be found on the Social Security Administration's website:

"Whether a person works in a small establishment or a large establishment, whether he works on a farm or whether he works as a domestic servant, or whether he works in a factory, there is one common characteristic, which is that everybody grows old; and they all have to make provision for their old age or somebody has to take care of them.... And whether you do it in the form of pensions, or in some other way, there is no way of escaping that cost.” 

FDR himself, weeks before the Social Security bill was introduced on Capitol Hill, explained it thusly: “Old age is the most certain, and for many people the most tragic, of hazards. There is no tragedy in growing old, but there is tragedy in growing old without means of support.”

As for the CCC, or Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal work-relief program for young men Simpson references, the Congressional Record shows not a single mention of the CCC during the Senate and House debates -- 18 days all together.

Simpson further repeated one of his favorite canards about life expectancy for Social Security beneficiaries, which is that life expectancy was 63 when the program was created, therefore it was designed from the start as a fraud on future retirees.

The facts are these, as Simpson undoubtedly knows: Life expectancy at birth was about 63 in the late 1930s, according to government statistics. But that was largely an artifact of high infant mortality. For those age 20 -- that is, beginning their working lives and thus contributing to Social Security -- average life expectancy was 69. For those who had already reached 65, and therefore would be collecting benefits, it was 78. As Witte told Congress, elderly retired people already numbered in the millions and would become an ever-increasing percentage of the population in coming years. 

Alan Simpson obviously has a problem with the facts, and with the basic concept of civility in public discourse. Yet he's been held up by President Obama as a paragon of bipartisan policy-making. So here's a question for the president: Does Alan Simpson speak for him on Social Security? 

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