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

Social Security: (Mostly) in Their Own Words

Democratic attack ads star GOP opponents talking about this popular issue.


Call it senior scare. In race after race, Democrats running for Congress are using their opponents’ criticisms of Social Security against them — sometimes accurately, and sometimes not:

  • Rep. Steve Kagen’s ad accurately quotes Reid Ribble saying he wants to “phase out” Social Security. But the ad’s claim that Ribble would force “Wisconsin’s seniors to fend for themselves” could mislead retirees into thinking that their benefits would be at risk.
  • Rep. Baron Hill of Indiana falsely suggests his opponent, Todd Young, thinks Social Security is a government handout, not an earned benefit. Why? Because Young once described it as a “social welfare program” — a term the Social Security Administration itself has used.
  • Rep. Gabrielle Giffords uses a clip of Arizona Republican Jesse Kelly saying he wants “to privatize it, to phase it out.” But her ad misleads current retirees into thinking their benefits would be cut, when Kelly has said since 2009 that they would be protected.
  • Dan Benishek, a Republican running in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District, is heard saying “privatizing Social Security and Medicare is the only way” to continue the programs. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s ad goes on to misrepresent Benishek’s proposal for voluntary individual retirement accounts.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado accurately quotes Republican Ken Buck calling Social Security a “horrible policy.” But Buck has since backed off that stance.


This campaign cycle, some Democrats are letting their Republican opponents do the talking when it comes to attack ads — especially on the topic of Social Security. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is best known for this line of attack. He has featured GOP challenger Sharron Angle in several ads — including this one — on Social Security. But lately we’ve noticed a sharp increase in the number of Democrats who are using their opponents’ own words against them on this topic. Context is crucial for many of the ads, and we find that the Democrats have exaggerated some of the claims. However, in other cases, the accusations prove to be true.

Leaving ‘Seniors to Fend for Themselves’?

[TET ]

Kagen for Congress TV Ad: “Ribble in His Own Words”

Announcer: Some things are just bad ideas. Politician Reid Ribble has a worse idea. Ribble wants to phase out Social Security, forcing Wisconsin’s seniors to fend for themselves. Here’s Ribble in his own words.

Ribble: Somehow we have to establish a phase out of the current Social Security system…

Announcer: Tell Republican Reid Ribble to keep his hands off our Social Security.


In Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District, Kagen started airing a TV ad Sept. 17 that says his Republican opponent wants to “phase out the current Social Security system.” The ad — “Ribble in His Own Words” — shows an elderly woman going over her bills as the announcer says Ribble’s “bad idea” would force “Wisconsin’s seniors to fend for themselves.” Cut to a video clip of Ribble speaking at a candidate forum on Nov. 3, 2009: “Somehow we have to establish a phase out of the current Social Security system,” he says. (More of his answer can be viewed here.)

Ribble does say he wants to eventually “establish a phase out of the current Social Security system into a new system,” but the words “into a new system” were edited out in the ad. Ribble also goes on to make it clear in his response that current retirees should not be part of the new plan — whatever it may be. He doesn’t propose any solutions.

Ribble: There’s been a promise made and for those of you in that are in their retirement years, you lived and planned your life based on a promise by your government. And so somehow we have to establish a phase out of the current Social Security system to a new system, and that will have to happen over time. It could happen in a single generation, it will probably require a fair amount of change in retirement age. … I envision a shift in how that system works so that by the time you get there you are not only responsible for your own, but we’ve made tax law available to help you be responsible for your own, and that the government can’t take that money from you and give it to somebody else. That is in fact, a Ponzi scheme.

In a statement to us, Ribble writes that “Congressman Kagen’s commercial completely distorts my view on Social Security. His highly selective editing implies that I want to end Social Security when nothing could be further from the truth.“

We don’t agree that it “completely distorts” Ribble’s view. But it is misleading to say Ribble would force “Wisconsin seniors to fend for themselves,” and to suggest that Ribble would phase out the program without replacing it with a new plan.

Taking Away Social Security?

[TET ]

Hill For Congress TV Ad: “Welfare”

Announcer: First this…

Todd Young: “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.”

Announcer: Now this, Todd Young thinks Social Security and Medicare are social welfare programs.

Senior 1: Welfare? I worked my whole life.

Senior 2: Money from every pay check went to Social Security, that’s not Welfare.

Senior 3: That’s not Welfare, we earned it.

Announcer: If Todd Young thinks Social Security and Medicare are Welfare programs, will he fight to protect them or take them away?

Senior 4: Todd Young is not for us.


In his latest ad, Democratic Rep. Baron Hill of Indiana criticizes Republican challenger Todd Young for referring to Social Security and Medicare as “social welfare programs” – incorrectly implying that Young believes Social Security is a government handout and not rightfully earned. The ad also suggests, without any evidence, that Young will “take them away.”

The ad, which first aired Aug. 30, says, “Todd Young thinks that Social Security and Medicare are ‘social welfare programs.’ ” It features several elderly people complaining that they worked hard for their Social Security money. One states: “Welfare? I worked my whole life.”

The ad ends by posing this question: “If Todd Young thinks Social Security and Medicare are welfare programs, will he fight to protect them or take them away?”

Hill’s ad is correct in saying that Young called Social Security and Medicare “social welfare programs.” He did so at a March 25 town hall meeting (beginning at the 7:14 mark). But the context of Young’s remarks show his choice of words was descriptive, not judgmental, and there is no evidence that he intends to end these programs.

Early in his speech (at the 3:00 mark), Young discusses the country’s current debt situation, referencing “$60 trillion of unfunded liabilities.” Later, after a man in the crowd asks a question concerning Social Security, Young utters the statement that made it into Hill’s ad: “I group together Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as the three social welfare programs that constitute most of that $60 trillion in unfunded liabilities.” He goes on to say that the future of these programs is unstable and we need a better way of funding them than simply passing on the debt to the next generation. He does not mention anything about ending these programs.

In addition, Ryan Burchfield, Young’s campaign manager, pointed out that the Social Security Administration itself refers to Social Security and Medicare as “social welfare” programs on its website. The agency provides a brief history of “social welfare” programs, including Social Security. It opens with the sentence: “The U.S. social welfare structure has been shaped both by long standing traditions and by changing economic and social conditions.”

This is the second time that Hill used Young’s own comments against him. In an earlier ad, Hill criticized Young for calling Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” at a June 15 town hall meeting – a clip that Hill uses again in his latest ad.

At the town hall meeting, Young said Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” because Congress uses Social Security payroll taxes for other purposes and puts IOUs in the Social Security trust funds. He proposed changes, such as reducing federal spending “so that we still have money for these programs like Social Security.”

Again, he did not mention ending the program. In August, Young told Louisville, Kentucky’s Courier-Journal that he pledges to protect Social Security for “today’s seniors and those approaching retirement” and “for future generations.”

Gambling ‘Your Retirement’ Funds?

[TET ]
Giffords for Congress TV Ad: “After All”

Announcer: After all that’s happened on Wall Street, imagine if they had their hands on Social Security, too. Jesse Kelly wants to phase out Social Security.

Jesse Kelly: “To privatize it, to phase it out.”

Announcer: And gamble your retirement in the stock market. Benefits, cut. Your retirement, at risk. Kelly even says he would love to eliminate Social Security all together. Jesse Kelly’s a risk we can’t afford.


Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords launched an attack ad on Aug. 24 that says Republican Jesse Kelly “wants to phase out Social Security” and “gamble your retirement in the stock market.”

It’s true that Kelly voiced support for eliminating or phasing out Social Security on more than one occasion early in the campaign. He has since gone on record to say that he does not support getting rid of the program and instead wants to offer younger workers the option of placing a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in investment funds. Kelly has, however, always supported meeting payments for current beneficiaries, despite the ad’s images that may lead older voters to believe otherwise.

In December 2009, Kelly told the Tucson Weekly that he “would love to eliminate the program” and he went on to say that he supports moving to a privatized system. Then in a July 30 debate (at the 46:35 mark), Kelly talked about taking “steps to reform it, to privatize it, to phase it out.”

Moderator Bill Buckmaster, KUAT debate, July 30: What about privatization of these two huge entitlement programs?

Jesse Kelly: We must. Bernie Madoff is in prison right now for what the federal government has done with Social Security and Medicare. It’s the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. It’s not an accident that the government has bankrupted everything they’ve ever touched, including Social Security and Medicare. They even bankrupted the Post Office, for goodness sakes. Right now, you have to take steps to reform it, to privatize it, to phase it out. Now these are not welfare programs. People have paid their entire lives into these programs, because the government has stolen their money. So you need to be fulfilling your promises in the near future, while phasing out future generations, taking steps to privatize, vouchers, everything. It’s not an option of should it be done — it must be done.

Kelly has since pledged his support for maintaining the current system, but allowing the option of investing into private retirement accounts for younger workers.

On Aug. 3, the Arizona Daily Star editorial board published Kelly’s response to this question: “What specific changes must be made to keep Social Security solvent?” Kelly said he supports a plan that would give younger workers the option to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in investment funds. In his answer, Kelly also expressed support for Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future. Ryan’s plan calls for preserving Social Security for current beneficiaries, but allows the option of investing retirement money into personal retirement accounts for those under the age of 55.

Jesse Kelly, Arizona Daily Star, Aug. 3: We must meet our obligations to those who have paid into the Social Security system their entire lives, while allowing our younger generations to transition their retirement into a more personalized, viable program. We should look to other industrialized nations, like Chile, which have successfully reformed their retirement systems. While we guarantee the middle-aged and elderly their Social Security benefits, younger workers should have access to an opt-out provision, providing them with various options for individually owned accounts. Also, Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future has excellent ideas for reforming and strengthening Social Security.

Both his plan and Ryan’s roadmap would be voluntary, not mandatory. Kelly does mention that we should “look to” Chile, which has a privatized Social Security system, but he doesn’t say we should adopt that country’s plan. He speaks specifically about providing options, not mandates.

The images in the ad could mislead retirees into thinking their Social Security benefits would be at risk. At one point, an elderly couple is shown standing in their kitchen with the words “Social Security benefits cut” superimposed on the screen. Two things about this:

  • The claim that benefits would be cut is incorrect, as we have said before. It is based on a 2004 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office of a particular plan proposed by a presidential commission on Social Security. The plan would not have cut benefits, but rather would have held “benefits for future retirees constant instead of letting them grow faster than inflation.”
  • Regardless, Kelly pledges on his website to “fully honor benefits for current retirees,” and he says that “those who have been paying into the system should also receive full benefits.” Even in 2009, when he talked about eliminating Social Security, Kelly said current retirees earned their benefits. “They worked their tails off their whole lives, so we can’t cut it right now,” he said.

Another Gamble

[TET ]

DCCC TV Ad: “Bad Ideas”

Announcer: Most politicians want to hide their bad ideas from you. Not Dan Benishek. Here he is on Social Security and Medicare:

Benishek: “Privatizing Social Security and Medicare is the only way to do it.”

Announcer: Just this year Benishek said he supports a plan that would let Wall Street gamble with your Social Security, And privatize Medicare, leaving seniors on their own to buy costly health insurance. Benishek’s bad ideas are going to cost you.


The DCCC ad, which first aired Sept. 7, correctly quotes GOP candidate Dan Benishek in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District as saying he favors “privatizing Social Security and Medicare.” But the ad incorrectly describes the proposal that he supports.

At a candidate forum in July, Benishek said “privatizing Social Security and Medicare is the only way to do it,” when discussing the future solvency of the programs. He said he supports Rep. Ryan’s Road Map for America. “But it has to be gradual thing,” he adds, “because we can’t have the people who are on Social Security now — you have to be true to our promise to them.”

Benishek made similar comments in May during an iCaucus phone interview (at 42:25 into the audio). He said that “we have to kind of go with that Road Map for America like Paul Ryan suggested.” Later, he said: “I am on board with Ryan, that is for sure. I agree with his plan. I mean I read it all over, and you know that seems like the only responsible plan that I have seen actually.”

The DCCC ad claims that Benishek “supports a plan that would let Wall Street gamble with your Social Security,” showing a red arrow pointing down next to the words: “Social Security investments 40%.” The ad falsely implies that Social Security investments would have declined by 40 percent during the current recession if Ryan’s plan had been in effect. As we have written before, Ryan’s plan is voluntary. Individuals would have the option to invest “over one third” of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts. If workers choose to invest their Social Security in the stock market, then that’s their “gamble” — not Wall Street’s.

Furthermore, “Social Security investments” would not have declined by 40 percent when the stock market crashed in 2008, because that could only happen if all Social Security funds were invested in stocks. And that would not be possible under Ryan’s plan.

Ryan’s plan also does not, as the ad alleges, “leave seniors on their own to buy costly health insurance.” Ryan’s Medicare proposal would give vouchers to seniors to purchase private health insurance. The ad cites an Ezra Klein column in The Washington Post to support the statement. The column, referring to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis of Ryan’s plan, says that the plan would disadvantage seniors because the value of the vouchers would not increase at the same rate as health care costs. Furthermore, the CBO states that seniors would face higher premiums for the same care by shifting coverage to the private market. The CBO concludes:

CBO, Jan. 27: Beneficiaries would therefore face higher premiums in the private market for a package of benefits similar to that currently provided by Medicare. Moreover, the value of the voucher would grow significantly more slowly than CBO expects that Medicare spending per enrollee would grow under current law. Beneficiaries would therefore be likely to purchase less comprehensive health plans or plans more heavily managed than traditional Medicare. … Beneficiaries would also bear the financial risk for the cost of buying insurance policies or the cost of obtaining health care services beyond what would be covered by their insurance.

Despite these assertions, the fact remains that no seniors would be completely on their own to buy health insurance because of the vouchers.

We’ll let readers decide if, as the ad claims, Benishek’s support of Ryan’s plan is a “bad idea.” But the DCCC gives misinformation about what the plan actually would do.

Bucking Social Security

[TET ]

Bennet for Colorado TV Ad: “Who is Ken Buck?”

Buck: I’ll be a voice that represents the people on Main Street.

Announcer: Who is Ken Buck and does he speak for Colorado? Buck wants to privatize Social Security. And he even questioned whether Social Security should exist at all.

Buck: I don’t know whether it is constitutional or not. It is certainly a horrible policy.

Announcer: On education?

Buck: We don’t need a Department of Education.

Announcer: And Ken Buck wants to end student loans for middle-class kids.

Buck: I don’t think our founding fathers ever intended for the federal government to have student loans.

Announcer: Ken Buck even wants to ban common forms of birth control. And Buck’s view on abortion?

Buck: I am pro-life. And I’ll answer the next question: I don’t believe in the exceptions of rape or incest.

Announcer: Maybe Ken Buck asked the right question.

Buck: I’m an extremist? I’m an extremist?

Announcer: Ken Buck. He shouldn’t be speaking for Colorado.

Bennet has two versions of this ad: a 30-second TV spot and a 60-second Internet version (above). The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee started running a similar ad Sept. 7. Bennet’s 30-second TV ad, which first aired Aug. 31, says of Buck: “He called Social Security ‘a horrible policy’ that should be privatized.” The longer version says, “Buck wants to privatize Social Security. And he even questioned whether Social Security should exist at all.” It goes on to quote Buck saying, “I don’t know if it is constitutional or not. It is certainly a horrible policy.” Buck made those comments at a March 9 candidate forum in Colorado Springs. The video of the debate is no longer on YouTube, but a Denver TV station did provide the question and answer from that day:

Question: Is it constitutional for the government to have a Social Security program where it directs the monies that we put into it?

Buck: I don’t know whether it’s constitutional or not, it is certainly a horrible policy, and what happened in the LBJ administration back in the ’60s, when they took the money out of the trust fund to use to fund general fund programs, and what we ended up with was a system that will be bankrupt in 10-25 years from now. It is bad policy. I don’t know that a federal government should be involved in a retirement plan. It should be a plan that certainly once people pay into it, they have the expectation of getting their retirement and they’re entitled to that.

The Denver Post quoted Buck as saying at that same candidate forum:

Denver Post, Aug. 14: “I don’t know that the federal government should be involved in a retirement plan. It should be a plan that certainly once people pay into it they have an expectation of getting retirement and they’re entitled to that,” Buck also said. “But the idea that the federal government should be running health care or retirement or any of those programs is fundamentally against what I believe and that is that the private sector runs programs like that far better.”

In a June 28 story, Politico said Buck at first denied making those comments — until his campaign was given evidence of his statements. “I’ve been on the road for a year and a half, and there are times where I want to get out of some place and get some sleep and I have made a statement that is not consistent with what I have said before,” Buck told Politico. “It is a very long process and having a camera on you, there’s definitely instances where I could have chosen my words better.”

Buck expanded on his comments about Social Security in a July 26 Wall Street Journal article. The paper wrote: “In a recent interview, he said he had meant to say it was a horrible policy for the government to raid the Social Security trust fund. Mr. Buck said he would consider some privatization of Social Security but wanted to be sure needy seniors retain a safety net.” Buck’s campaign website posted an item Sept. 2 calling Bennet’s ad false. But Bennet’s ad does not go beyond Buck’s own statements on Social Security, so the use of those statements is neither false nor misleading.

— by Kelsey Ferguson, Joshua Goldman, Annie Norbitz, Lara Seligman and Eugene Kiely


Ferguson, Kelsey. “Reid Attacks Angle on Social Security.” FactCheck.org. 18 Jun 2010.

DCCCLive YouTube Channel. “Reid Ribble: Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme.” 14 Sep 2010.

Roskam, Kyle, spokesman, Reid Ribble for Congress. E-mail sent to FactCheck.org. 20 Sep 2010.

Jaslow, Allison, spokeswoman, Kagen for Congress. E-mail sent to FactCheck.org. 20 Sep 2010.

IN09RawFootage YouTube Channel. “Todd Young Salem Town Hall 4.” 16 May 2010.

IN09RawFootage YouTube Channel. “Todd Young Salem Town Hall 3.” 16 May 2010.

Weidenbener, Lesley Stedman. “Young under attack in 9th District.” Louisville Courier-Journal. 19 Aug 2010.

Historical Development.” Social Security Administration. Accessed 21 Sep 2010.

HillBaron YouTube Channel. “Scheme.” 18 Aug 2010.

Eyeonindiana YouTube Channel. “Todd Young: Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme.” 17 Jun 2010.

Nintzel, Jim. “Jesse Kelly on War, Health Care Reform, Federal Spending and the Rosemont Mine.” Tucson Weekly. 2 Dec 2010.

Buckmaster, Bill. “GOP Candidates in Congressional District 8.” Arizona Public Media. 30 Jul 2010.

Ryan, Rep. Paul. “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” Jan 2010.

The candidates speak: Republican candidates for Congress in CD 8.” Arizona Daily Star. 3 Aug 2010.

The Social Security Network. “Chile’s Experience with Social Security Privatization: A Model for the United States.” 10 Mar 1999.

Jackson, Brooks. “Kerry Falsely Claims Bush Plans To Cut Social Security Benefits.” FactCheck.org. 18 Oct 2004.

Jesse Kelly for Congress. “The Issues: Social Security.” Accessed 21 Sep 2010.

MI01RawFootage YouTube Channel. “Escanaba Candidate Forum [Part 7 of 11].” 30 Jul 2010.

Talkshoe.com. Benishek interview with iCaucus. Accessed 21 Sep 2010.

Novak, Viveca and Eugene Kiely. “Democrats Misfire on Social Security — Again.” FactCheck.org. 2 Sep 2010.

Klein, Ezra. “Rep. Paul Ryan’s daring budget proposal.” Washington Post. 2 Feb 2010.

U.S. Congressional Budget Office. “Roadmap for America’s Future analysis.” 27 Jan 2010.

Zelinger, Marshall. “Facts Or Fiction: Is Ken Buck ‘Too Extreme’?” KMGH-TV, Denver. 2 Sep 2010.

Miller, Elizabeth. “Political Polygraph: A fact check on Ken Buck.” Denver Post. 14 Aug 2010.

Simon, Stephanie. “Tough Talk Pays Off for Colorado Senate Hopeful.” Wall Street Journal. 26 Jul 2010.

Kincaid, Trevor, spokesman, Bennet for Colorado. E-mail sent to FactCheck.org. 20 Sep 2010.