Another (incredibly trivialized) attack on Social Security

The scandal that isn't: Sex offenders scamming Social Security

The National Journal, an elite newsmagazine that claims to be "regarded as the most influential publication in Washington," is trumpeting a big scoop about Social Security on its homepage.

"Social Security Doles Out More Than $500,000 to Sexual Predators," the Journal reports. 

Since the National Journal also claims to be "fiercely honest and scrupulously non-partisan," this sounds like something worth looking into. 

So let's do so.

In the first place, let's consider the disconnect between the size of the National Journal's headline, which all but proclaims "Scandal!!!", and the nature of the discovery. The cash figure cited should provide a clue that this is a molehill hiding under a pile of other molehills. 

The piece, which was actually reprinted from Government Executive magazine, is based on a report issued April 7 by Social Security's Office of the Inspector General. The OIG didn't actually find "more than $500,000" in Social Security benefits going to sexual predators, but $418,000. The rest was supplemental security income, which is different. 

Anyhow, how many of these sexual predators were caught collecting benefits? Eighteen. Over what period? The National Journal's calculations cover the years 2006 to 2014. Over that time, the Social Security Administration paid out an estimated $4.8 trillion in total benefits. So our 18 sexual predators illicitly scammed something in the neighborhood of one hundred-thousandth of a percent off the top.

How big a headline does that deserve?

The OIG says this might be a conservative figure, since it compiled numbers from only four of the 23 federal "special commitment centers" that hold sexual offenders who have completed their sentences. But even if we extrapolate very liberally, we're still talking about perhaps five hundred-thousandths of a percent. It's true, according to a quote attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), that "a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money," but this figure isn't even on the charts. (Dean Baker, who arrives at a slightly different ratio, helps put the statistic in perspective here.)

The National Journal report may be trivial in numeric terms, but it's important as a window into the warped attacks on Social Security that seem to be surfacing more frequently of late. The theme is that the program is lavishing torrents of cash to undeserving recipients -- and you, the taxpayers, are on the hook.

The last big investigation of this type surfaced last year, when the Associated Press discovered that Social Security benefits were going out to deported ex-Nazis. How many Nazis? The AP found 38, out of about 56 million Social Security beneficiaries overall. The news agency tried its best to make this out to be an absolutely horrific scandal, calculating that an emblematic ex-Nazi who had earned an average wage and retired in 1990 would have received benefits totaling $375,000 over 25 years. Sounds like a lot, right? 

The AP didn't do all the math it could, however, or it would have specified that all the ex-Nazis living off Social Security still accounted to a few hundred-thousandths of a percent, at best, of the benefits paid over the relevant period. 

The AP couldn't avoid mentioning that Congress was fully aware of the situation -- indeed, had implicitly allowed federal Nazi-hunters to use Social Security benefits as a bargaining-chip in deportation cases -- agreeing to let prospective deportees keep their Social Security in exchange for their agreeing to leave the United States. We know how Congress felt then, because the lawmakers rejected a proposed law barring such deals in 1999.

We don't hold a brief for Nazis, ex- or otherwise. But we were more concerned that these alleged war criminals were escaping prosecution than that they were receiving Social Security benefits, which, sad but true, they had managed to earn by working while hiding in plain sight in the United States.

Anyway, Nazi war criminals don't have a lobbying group in Washington -- not that they should -- so right after the AP published its investigation, Congress hustled to cut them off. There didn't seem to be any dissenters to the bluntly-named No Social Security for Nazis Act. (Who would dare?)

Like Nazis, sex offenders don't have a cadre of defenders in Congress. But the OIG report does point to a question the National Journal didn't bother to address: Why are people in "special commitment centers" denied benefits?

Social Security benefits are typically suspended when a recipient enters jail or prison, but customarily they're resumed as soon as the beneficiaries have served their time. Sex offenders appear to be a special case, because of a 1999 law denying benefits to sexual predators remaining confined to public institutions after their release from prison.

A debate continues on whether the American treatment of sex offenders, which amounts to near permanent ostracism, is the best policy, but it's probably safe to say that public opinion isn't on the offenders' side. All we can say is that the problem of these offenders receiving Social Security is so minuscule as to rank as nothing but a distraction.

The subtext is important: stories like these have the effect -- and sometimes even the aim -- of undermining Social Security's credibility. The raw figures should always be published with adequate context, so the readers know what they really mean. These weren't.

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