It's easy to be overwhelmed by fear and confusion as the debate over our stunning deficit stumbles forward.
Confusion remains when Social Security is the topic but fear ramps up.
Politicians, such as our own U.S Sen. Mitch McConnell, try to play on that awful mix of emotions to claim that Social Security can only be saved by the work of a terrible swift sword.
"We have to adjust the trajectory of these very significant entitlement programs, or they're not going to be there at all," said McConnell, Senate minority leader.
This type of talk turns the problem on its head, suggesting that Social Security is making the deficit even more threatening.
In fact, it's the deficit that's threatening Social Security.
Confusion is natural. Consider that both of these things are true:
■ The Social Security Trust Fund has enough holdings to pay out all projected benefits through 2038.
■ Social Security is paying out billions more each year than it takes in, and that gap is just going to grow.
You need to understand what's in the huge Social Security Trust Fund and how it came into existence to understand how these two seemingly opposing statements can be true.
Social Security was established in 1935 as a self-funding program. Workers and their employers paid into the system, providing benefits for retirees. In 1977 and 1983, adjustments were made to improve Social Security's economic health.
For several decades, the money paid in exceeded benefits paid out, resulting in a surplus. In a private trust fund, that surplus would likely be socked away in a combination of cash and investments.
The Social Security surplus, however, was invested uniquely in special U.S. Treasury notes. Essentially, the surplus was used for ongoing operations of the rest of government, in exchange for IOUs from the treasury.
That's why Social Security comes into the debate about our swollen federal deficit: In order to fund the program in coming decades, one branch of the federal government — the treasury— will have to pay out billions to another: Social Security.
One suggestion is to reduce the deficit by slicing Social Security benefits so that the rest of government won't have to make good on all those IOUs. That's McConnell's cut-to-save formula.
It's important to look at who gets Social Security retirement benefits, and how much they receive.
The average monthly benefit is $1,175 or $14,100 a year. For 22 percent of married couples and 43 percent of singles, Social Security is 90 percent or more of their income. For almost three-quarters of singles, the monthly check accounts for half or more of their income.
Social Security is largely what it was intended to be, a safety net that barely keeps older adults out of abject poverty after their long working lives are over.
No wonder the fear card is so effective.
Effective but misleading. There are other options, include spending less elsewhere and raising tax rates or closing loopholes, or both. Another possibility is cutting Social Security benefits for those who don't rely on it for necessities.
If Social Security itself doesn't survive, it will be because we simply don't have the political will to make good on our IOUs.