My mother's mother revered Franklin Roosevelt. She voted for him four times, and firmly defended him decades later, when I tried to convince her that FDR was not the haloed saint she imagined.
"It's because of Roosevelt that I'm getting $800 in Social Security every month," she'd tell me. Actually, I'd reply, it was because of people like me -- younger workers paying into the system, at tax rates considerably steeper than hers had ever been -- that retirees like her were receiving those monthly checks.
But like millions of seniors then and now, Grandma was convinced that her Social Security benefits were an entitlement she had bought with her own payroll taxes years earlier. She blessed FDR for creating the Social Security trust fund in which she had faithfully invested for most of her working life, and couldn't understand why her grandson had any objection to it.
In reality there is no money in Social Security's trust fund and never has been. It is merely an accounting fiction, like the individual Social Security accounts to which workers' payroll taxes are credited. But Grandma could hardly be blamed for believing otherwise. Right from the start, Social Security was promoted to Americans as a straightforward pension fund. "We have set up a savings account for the old age of the worker," FDR told a Pennsylvania audience in 1936. Contributions would be made by employers and employees via payroll taxes, which would be "held by the government solely for the benefit of the worker in his old age."
It wasn't true. In a decision the following year upholding the Social Security Act, the Supreme Court confirmed what anyone who read the law would already have discovered: Payroll taxes weren't held by the government solely for the benefit for retirees. On the contrary: Social Security taxes "are to be paid into the Treasury like internal revenue taxes generally, and are not earmarked in any way."
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