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Last week, I resurrected a column from about a year ago that refuted some allegations from a diatribe foolishly called a “Social Security History Lesson” that has been polluting the Internet for years. Even though it’s full of lies that should be apparent to anyone who reads it, it seems to gain legitimacy the more time it spends in cyberspace. Billed as offering some bipartisan insight into Social Security’s past, the silly document rewrites history in a partisan attempt to portray Democrats as the political party out to ruin Social Security.

I covered about half of the attacks last week. This week, more misleading allegations and more hard facts.

Allegation: The Internet document asks, “Which political party started taxing Social Security annuities?” And it answers the question this way: “The Democratic Party, with Al Gore casting the tie-breaking vote.”

Fact: My conservative friends are going to be shocked to hear this, but I’m afraid it was their hero, President Reagan, who first started taxing Social Security benefits. Yes, the poster boy for the anti-government tea party crowd instituted one of the largest tax increases in the history of this country when he signed the Social Security Reform Act of 1983.

But actually, the guy deserves credit for doing so. At the time, Social Security was in dire straits. There were only enough reserves left in the Social Security trust funds to keep the system running for another five years or so. So he created the National Commission on Social Security Reform and named Alan Greenspan to head the panel. They produced a series of proposals that Reagan signed into law — some of which cut benefits (e.g., dependent benefits to college students were eliminated) and some of which raised revenues (the aforementioned taxation of Social Security benefits). Their actions, and frankly, Reagan’s courage to take on the naysayers and anti-tax zealots of his own Republican Party, are in large part responsible for keeping the Social Security system solvent to this day.

The whackos who put out the “Social Security History Lesson” can at least claim a sliver of truth to their allegation that the Democrats were involved in taxing Social Security. It was the Clinton administration that modified the tax rules in 1993 by raising the portion of benefits subject to taxation for wealthier people from 50 percent to 85 percent. (I have no idea if Al Gore cast the tiebreaking vote, but let’s say he did so that the people who put out this partisan puffery can take credit for getting one thing right!)

By the way, with all the hoopla over the taxation of Social Security benefits, it’s interesting to note that the vast majority of Americans don’t pay any taxes on their benefits. In order to have your benefits taxed, your overall income has to exceed certain thresholds that depend on whether or not you are married and on your tax filing status. And again, most people do not exceed those income limits.

Allegation: The Internet history lesson asks this question: “Which political party decided to start giving Social Security payments to immigrants, including illegals?” And it answers, “That’s right! Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party. Immigrants and illegal aliens move into this country and at age 65 begin to receive Social Security payments. The Democratic Party gave these payments to them, even though they never paid a dime into it!”

Fact: This is absolute hogwash. But it’s an example of how misinformation spreads in today’s wired world. If you repeat something often enough, no matter how preposterous, people will believe it — especially if they are inclined to believe anti-government propaganda in the first place.

How do I begin to set the facts straight on this one? Let’s start with this basic premise: no one can get Social Security retirement benefits unless he or she has worked and paid enough in Social Security taxes to become insured. And that usually means a minimum of 10 years of work.

Also, from the time the original Social Security Act was passed in 1935, the law has never set a citizenship test for benefit eligibility. As long as you had worked long enough to be insured, you could receive retirement benefits at age 62. And a small fraction of those benefits are paid to immigrants who are living in this country legally . As I’ve pointed out countless times in this column, people living in this country illegally do not collect Social Security benefits.

So how did these guys tie Jimmy Carter into the immigrants-and-Social-Security story? It’s an example of how they can take a tiny kernel of truth and twist it and tweak it until they’ve come up with a whopper of a lie. What did happen while Jimmy Carter was president is that the first international Social Security treaty agreements were signed. Recognizing as early as the 1970s that we really were developing a global economy, Social Security program managers around the world realized they needed to establish agreements among themselves.

Often, citizens of one country were working in another country. Sometimes they worked for a corporation headquartered in their native land. And sometimes they worked for a company in the country in which they were residing. But this led to all kinds of issues with respect to Social Security taxes and eventual Social Security benefits: For example, should you pay Social Security taxes to your native country or to the country in which you are working? Or should you get Social Security benefits from your native country, or from the country where you were working? Those are the kinds of issues these Social Security treaty agreements are designed to deal with. And President Carter signed the first of these treaties in the late 1970s with Italy and Germany.

Today, we have such agreements with about 25 countries around the world.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer.

Contact him at


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