On May 1 2019, the Facebook page for youth conservative outreach organization Turning Point USA shared a meme (archived here) purporting to detail “the truth” about several changes made to Social Security over the years:
An appended status update read “Unbelievable… #BigGovSucks,” and the meme claimed:
THE TRUTH ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY
LIBERALS MOVED SOCIAL SECURITY FUNDS FROM A PRIVATE TRUST TO A PUBLIC FUND SO THEY COULD SPEND IT
LIBERALS STARTED TAXING SOCIAL SECURITY PAYMENTS
LIBERALS STOPPED TAX DEDUCTIONS FOR SOCIAL SECURITY PAYMENTS
LIBERALS STARTED GIVING SOCIAL SECURITY TO IMMIGRANTS WHO HAD NOT PAID INTO IT …
No corroborating information was included, but a number of commenters linked to a Social Security Administration page they said disputed the claims in the meme.
That page (“Social Security History — Debunking Some Internet Myths- Part 2”) looked as if it directly addressed TPUSA’s meme. But according to the Internet Archive, a version of the page saved in June 2004 was virtually unchanged. It appeared that in some version or other, the same claims had circulated together since at least 2004 and possibly earlier.
In its first of four claims, TPUSA asserted that “Liberals moved Social Security funds from a private trust to a public fund so they could spend it.” SSA listed five questions in their myths page, the first of which was:
Q1: Which political party took Social Security from the independent trust fund and put it into the general fund so that Congress could spend it?
A following answer explained:
There has never been any change in the way the Social Security program is financed or the way that Social Security payroll taxes are used by the federal government. The Social Security Trust Fund was created in 1939 as part of the Amendments enacted in that year. From its inception, the Trust Fund has always worked the same way. The Social Security Trust Fund has never been “put into the general fund of the government.”
Most likely this question comes from a confusion between the financing of the Social Security program and the way the Social Security Trust Fund is treated in federal budget accounting. Starting in 1969 (due to action by the Johnson Administration in 1968) the transactions to the Trust Fund were included in what is known as the “unified budget.” This means that every function of the federal government is included in a single budget. This is sometimes described by saying that the Social Security Trust Funds are “on-budget.” This budget treatment of the Social Security Trust Fund continued until 1990 when the Trust Funds were again taken “off-budget.” This means only that they are shown as a separate account in the federal budget. But whether the Trust Funds are “on-budget” or “off-budget” is primarily a question of accounting practices — it has no effect on the actual operations of the Trust Fund itself.
The second and third claims by TPUSA held that “Liberals started taxing Social Security payments” and “Liberals stopped tax deductions for Social Security payments.”
Questions two and three on the SSA page addressed taxes, deductions, and Social Security contributions:
Q2: Which political party eliminated the income tax deduction for Social Security (FICA) withholding?
Q3: Which political party started taxing Social Security annuities?
Answers for questions two and three broadly addressed claims about taxing Social Security contributions. Per SSA, contributions were never deductible following the original passage of the law in 1935. Taxation of Social Security came about in 1984 due to a law signed by former President Ronald Reagan (who was not “liberal”):
There was never any provision of law making the Social Security taxes paid by employees deductible for income tax purposes. In fact, the 1935 law expressly forbid this idea, in Section 803 of Title VIII.
The taxation of Social Security began in 1984 following passage of a set of Amendments in 1983, which were signed into law by President Reagan in April 1983. These amendments passed the Congress in 1983 on an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote.
The basic rule put in place was that up to 50% of Social Security benefits could be added to taxable income, if the taxpayer’s total income exceeded certain thresholds.
The taxation of benefits was a proposal which came from the Greenspan Commission appointed by President Reagan and chaired by Alan Greenspan[.]
In the meme’s fourth and final claim, TPUSA claimed “Liberals started giving Social Security to immigrants who had not paid into it.” Question five on the SSA “myths and misinformation” page addressed immigrants and social security:
Which political party decided to start giving annuity payments to immigrants?
TPUSA’s version of the question (about immigrants who had “not paid into” Social Security) matched better with SSA’s answer to the question than the question itself. In SSA’s response, they began with information about any person’s ability to collect Social Security benefits without having paid into it. However, noting a change to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) versus Social Security, SSA explains that President Nixon —va Republican — signed a 1972 law enabling some immigrants to qualify for SSI — not Social Security:
Neither immigrants nor anyone else is able to collect Social Security benefits without someone paying Social Security payroll taxes into the system. The conditions under which Social Security benefits are payable, and to whom, can be found in the pamphlets available on our website.
The question confuses the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program with Social Security. SSI is a federal welfare program and no contributions, from immigrants or citizens or anyone else, is required for eligibility. Under certain conditions, immigrants can qualify for SSI benefits. The SSI program was an initiative of the Nixon Administration and was signed into law by President Nixon on October 30, 1972.
It almost appears as though TPUSA’s “truth about Social Security” meme was directly sourced from a 2004 (or earlier) SSA page debunking those exact claims. An additional page on the SSA site was first archived in May 2004 and addressed similar myths spreading online at the time it appeared.