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Fact check: White House deletes misleading tweet about Social Security

Fact check: White House deletes misleading tweet about Social Security


Washington
CNN

President Joe Biden keeps touting the size of next year’s increase in Social Security payments.

But his boasts leave out critical context: Biden doesn’t explain that the reason the 2023 increase will be unusually large is that the inflation rate has been unusually large. Nor was that context included in a misleading post from the White House’s Twitter account on Tuesday – a post the White House deleted on Wednesday after it was widely criticized and Twitter affixed a fact-check to it.

In addition, during a speech in Florida on Tuesday, Biden falsely claimed that the 2023 increase in Social Security payments will be the first increase in 10 years. In fact, there was an increase in every year of the Trump administration and the first two years of the Biden administration.

Biden has repeatedly noted in recent weeks that Social Security payments will rise substantially in 2023. He has invoked the increase while reciting his accomplishments as president.

“On our watch, for the first time in 10 years, seniors are going to get the biggest increase in their Social Security checks they’ve gotten,” Biden said in a speech last week at a Democratic fundraiser.

The White House’s Twitter account, which has more than eight million followers, was even more direct in crediting Biden for the increase. Its now-deleted Tuesday tweet read: “Seniors are getting the biggest increase in their Social Security checks in 10 years through President Biden’s leadership.”

It’s true that the 2023 increase – 8.7% – is the biggest in years, actually the biggest since 1981. But that’s not because of any positive Biden achievement.

FactsFirst: The increase in Social Security payments in 2023 is the biggest in years because the inflation rate has been the biggest in years. Under a law passed in the 1970sSocial Security payments must be increased by the same percentage that a certain measure of consumer prices has increased.

The increase is known as a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. Why will there be an 8.7% cost-of-living adjustment in 2023? Because average prices in the third quarter of 2022, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), were up 8.7% from average prices in the third quarter of 2021.

Asked about the White House’s assertion that “President Biden’s leadership” is responsible for the increase, Gary Engelhardt, a Syracuse University economics professor who studies Social Security, responded: “This assertion is incorrect.”

“The Social Security COLA is mandated by law (and has been for decades) and is tied to the rate of increase in the Consumer Price Index (ie, inflation). President Biden has control over neither. From a political standpoint, it is a decidedly positive spin on a problem (inflation) plaguing his approval ratings,” Engelhardt said in an email on Wednesday.

Mary Johnson, Social Security and Medicare policy analyst at The Senior Citizens League, an advocacy group, also dismissed the White House claim.

“If inflation climbs then seniors will get more in their Social Security checks the following year to protect the buying power of their benefits. The fact that Biden took credit in this fashion sounds a lot like he’s trying to make lemonade out of the inflation lemon,” Johnson said in a Wednesday email.

A second economics professor who studies retirement security, Teresa Ghilarducci of The New School, argued in an email that the White House tweet is “mostly true” – since Medicare Part B premiums, which are deducted from people’s Social Security payments every month if they’ re enrolled in both programs, are going down next year, giving seniors a bigger “NET Social Security check” than they would otherwise get. Ghilarducci argued that the Biden administration’s efforts to lower drug prices could have played a part in the decline in Medicare premiums.

Regardless of why Medicare premiums fell, we respectfully say “mostly true” is much too generous. The Social Security cost-of-living increase that has nothing to do with any Biden achievement will increase monthly payments by an average of $146, while the monthly reduction in the standard Medicare premium, whatever its causes, will be $5.20.

In other words, the vast majority of the reason that seniors will get more monthly money in 2023 is because of inflation, not because of any success on keeping drug prices in check.

Asked at a Wednesday briefing about why the tweet was deleted, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “Look, the tweet was not complete. Usually, when we put out a tweet, we post it with context. And it did not have that context.”

Biden has emphasized in recent weeks that 2023 will be the first time in a decade that Social Security payments are going up at the same time as Medicare premiums are going down.

Jean-Pierre identified this as “a little bit of context” the tweet was missing.

In his Florida speech on Tuesday, Biden said again that people’s Medicare costs are going down in 2023 for the first time in more than a decade. That’s correct, though the decline follows a much larger spike under Biden in 2022. (That 2022 increase was driven in significant part by the need to plan to pay for a newly approved Alzheimer’s drug; because the drugmaker ended up slashing the price of the drug and because Medicare restricted coverage of it, Medicare could pass savings back to Americans in 2023.)

But then Biden made a separate claim about Social Security alone: ​​“And on my watch, for the first time in 10 years, seniors are getting an increase in their Social Security checks.”

FactsFirst: Biden’s claim that this is the first time in 10 years that seniors are getting an increase in their Social Security checks is false. Inflation prompted an increase in Social Security payments every year from 2017 onward: 0.3% in 2017, 2.0% in 2018, 2.8% in 2019, 1.6% in 2020, 1.3% in 2021 and 5.9% in 2022.

The context around Biden’s Tuesday remark suggests he might have botched his usual scripted line about 2023 being the first time in a decade that Social Security payments to seniors are increasing at the same time as their Medicare payments are declining. Regardless of his intentions, though, this was a presidential address just a week before Election Day, and he said something that was plain wrong.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

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