Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Scaring Seniors on Social Security

Republicans misleadingly accuse Democratic House candidates of aiming to shrink benefit checks.


Several ads being aired by Republican House candidates try to frighten both old and young away from supporting their Democratic opponents, who, the Republicans claim, will “cut benefits for seniors” and “raise Social Security taxes” on workers.

What the Democrats actually support, however, is the AARP’s approach to addressing Social Security’s enormous deficit by making “modest adjustments in future benefits” and getting “additional contributions from higher-income workers.” Nobody is proposing cuts in current benefit levels.

John Rother, AARP’s Director of Legislation and Public Policy, calls the ads “a distortion” of the candidates’ positions as well as that of his group and says the spots misuse a survey AARP asked candidates to complete.

Some of the ads also repeat the misleading claim that Democratic candidates would “give our Social Security to illegals,” which we’ve addressed before. We know of nobody proposing to pay Social Security to illegal immigrants, not until and unless they legalize their status or become US citizens.


Incumbent J.D. Hayworth, a member of the Republican Revolution class of ’94, began airing an ad cut from this template on Oct. 9, attacking Democratic state Sen. and former Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell. The district is the Arizona 5th, a locale that’s high on the list of comfortable refuges for seniors fleeing colder climes. The same claims are also being heard in ads produced by the National Republican Congressional Committee in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Florida, and one by the campaign of Max Burns in Georgia.

Golden Years Turned to Brass?

The ad’s announcer says Mitchell’s “plan” for Social Security is “gonna hurt.” Mitchell will “cut benefits” and “raise Social Security taxes,” he tells us. The back-up for these claims is a questionnaire that candidates nationwide were asked to answer  by AARP, which claims 35 million members, all age 50 or older.

J.D. Hayworth Ad:
“Gonna Hurt”

Announcer: Harry Mitchell has a plan for Social Security. It’s gonna hurt.

Senior #1: I’m very concerned.

(On screen: “It’s gonna hurt!”, images of Mitchell at podium, senior citizens)

Announcer: Mitchell will cut benefits for seniors.

Senior #2: Are you kidding me?

Announcer: Raise Social Security taxes. And Mitchell would give our Social Security to illegals.

(On screen: “Raise taxes.” Senior citizens shaking their heads. Photo of Mitchell. “Social Security for illegals.” Photo of border crossing.

Senior #3: Social Security is something you’ve got to earn.

Announcer: Benefit cuts, tax increases, Social Security for illegals?

(On screen: “Benefit cuts, tax increases, Social Security for illegals”)

Senior #4: What are you thinking?

Announcer: It’s time to save Social Security from Harry Mitchell.

(On screen: Photo of Mitchell, various seniors)

J.D. Hayworth: I’m J.D. Hayworth and I approve this message.

One of the questions posed by AARP was “Will you support or oppose a balanced Social Security plan to continue the program’s guaranteed benefits for future generations?” The Libertarian candidate for the seat said no; he wants to scrap the system and switch to personal retirement accounts. Mitchell said yes, agreeing with the AARP’s approach to fixing Social Security’s financial shortfall.

The  imbalance is laid out in the  2006 Social Security Trustees’ report saying that if nothing changes, by 2040 the system will be unable to pay retirees their full benefits. The shortfall could be fixed, according to the trustees, by immediately raising payroll taxes by 2.02 percentage points. AARP prefers “a bipartisan plan that balances additional contributions from higher income workers with modest adjustments in future benefits” to maintain guaranteed payments for future retirees.

AARP opposes any cut in current benefits, but advocates slowing their rate of growth. “Anything on benefits would have to be done very gradually,” Rother says. But benefits would not drop below where they are now in real, inflation-adjusted terms, he maintains, and the buying power of future retirees would still be higher than it is today. To put it another way, current retirees would experience no drop in benefits whatsoever under AARP’s proposal.

As for raising Social Security taxes, that, too, is a mischaracterization of what AARP proposes. The group would not favor raising tax rates , but lifting the earnings cap. Currently, an individual’s wages are taxed at 12.4 per cent, which is split between employee and employer, to fund Social Security. But the earnings that are taxed are capped at  $90,000; any wages above that are exempt. It’s this $90,000 limit that AARP proposes lifting.

Mitchell isn’t the only one whose support for AARP’s approach is being attacked. The same response to AARP’s questionnaire was given by Democrats Ken Lucas in Kentucky’s 4th congressional district, John Barrow in Georgia’s 12th, Tim Mahoney in Florida’s 16th and Chris Carney in Pennsylvania’s 10th – all of whom are targeted in the GOP ads as wanting to cut benefits or raise Social Security taxes.

AARP is sending letters to its members in the half-a-dozen or so congressional districts where ads based on its survey are running to clarify the positions the candidates took in the questionnaire.

Hayworth’s Solution?

In his ad, Hayworth doesn’t tell us how he’d approach the coming Social Security crunch. His own response to the AARP questionnaire simply rejected tax increases or benefit cuts, without saying how that could be accomplished.

Hayworth: My bottom line is that we must do more to protect the system without resorting to tax increases, benefit cuts, increasing the retirement age, or privatizing the system. Working together, we can find a solution.

Likewise, Republican Geoff Davis, who’s running in Kentucky’s 4th congressional district, wrote on his AARP questionnaire that “It is important for the health of our economy that we [keep the system solvent] without increasing payroll taxes, without raising the retirement age, and without reducing benefits.”

Those Darn Illegals

Hayworth’s ad says “Mitchell would give our Social Security to illegals.” We’ve addressed similar claims previously. Under current law, naturalized citizens or other immigrants who are in the U.S. legally and have valid Social Security numbers can get credit for  taxes they previously paid while working illegally. Hayworth bases his claim on Mitchell’s stated support for granting the estimated 11 million illegal aliens in the US a process for legalizing their status, which proponents call a “path to citizenship” and critics call “amnesty.” Whatever one calls it, no illegal would get “our” Social Security benefits until and unless they become legal, just as it is now.

Bad Signal

Embattled GOP Rep. Tom Reynolds in western New York state uses radio interviews with challenger Jack Davis to attack his position on Social Security, rather than an AARP survey. In Reynolds’ ad, Davis is heard saying “That may have to be adjusted down,” in reference to Social Security benefits, and also “I think we should increase the retirement age.” The announcer quickly says, “Millionaire Jack Davis may not need Social Security, but we do.”

The quotes actually come from interviews on two different radio stations. We were unable to listen to or get a transcript of the interview in which Davis apparently made the statement that benefits “may have to be adjusted down,” so we can’t make any judgments about context. His comment about increasing the retirement age came in an October 2004 interview with WLVL talk show host Scott Leffler, who has complained about Reynolds’ ad. Leffler told FactCheck.org that Davis’ quote is “definitely taken out of context” in the ad, noting that Social Security was only a “passing topic” in the discussion. Davis was imagining a hypothetical worst case scenario for Social Security, according to Leffler, when he said:

Davis: Let’s say we have a serious problem there and some changes are going to have to be made. I’m a rich person … we can have a means test on it. Social Security was set up in the early 30’s, when people died at 62. People did not live till 80 to 85. Now it’s a longer period of time and the system is not set up so I think that we should have, not to change the people who are already retired, or close to retirement, but I think we should increase the retirement age.

-by Viveca Novak with Justin Bank


Watch Hayworth Ad: “Gonna Hurt”

Watch NRCC Ad in FL16: “Dangerous Idea”

Watch Burns Ad: “Hogwash”

Watch Reynolds Ad: “Social Security”

Watch NRCC Ad in KY04: “Bad Choices”

Watch NRCC Ad in PA10: “Cost More”


U.S. Social Security Administration. The 2006 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance Trust Funds. Washington: GPO, 2006.

AARP Voters’ Guides. 2006. American Association of Retired Peoples. 18 Oct 2006 (accessed).