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Social Security and You: You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto

Tom Margenau on

I've learned over the years that lots of people get hung up on the lexicon of Social Security. I will use a Social Security-related word or phrase in a column without giving it too much thought. And the next thing I know, there are emails in my inbox taking me to task for supposedly getting or saying something wrong. Here are a few examples.

Q: I notice that when you discuss the Social Security deductions from people's paychecks, you always refer to them as Social Security "taxes." But I think if you do your homework and check out the history of the law, you will learn that the proper term is "contributions." Would you please start using the right language?

A: Whether to call Social Security payroll deductions "taxes" or "contributions" has been debated for decades. But I can tell you this. In the 20 years I've been writing this column, you are the very first person to suggest I say "contributions." Usually, it's just the opposite. For example, every time I use that term in my column, I get dozens of angry emails from people saying some version of this: "How can you possibly call the Social Security tax payments I am making a contribution? I'm not contributing anything. I am being forced into paying this tax!" That's why I shy away from the controversy and call it either a "tax" or a "payroll deduction."

Q: Like almost everyone else, you continue to misname Social Security. That is not the official name for the program. According to the law, it is the Old Age Survivors and Disability Insurance program, or OASDI. I think you would be doing your readers a service if you start calling it what it is.

A: You are right, sort of. Actually, in the original law passed in 1935, it was referred to as Old Age and Survivors Insurance, or OASI. (Although the law itself was called "The Social Security Act.") The disability program wasn't added until the 1950s, and then it became Old Age Survivors and Disability Insurance. But I will bet you $50 that if you go up to 100 people and ask them what OASDI is, fewer than five of them will know what it means. In most newspapers around the country, this column is called "Social Security and You." I just don't think it would have the same snap if it were called "OASDI and You."

Q: I wish you would stop calling the extra benefits someone gets for waiting until 70 to start their Social Security a bonus. The term "bonus" implies something extra. It is essentially a gift or a reward. People who wait until age 70 to claim benefits have worked and earned the extra money they get. Call it something else, but don't call it a bonus!

A: The legal term for what you are talking about is a "delayed retirement credit." The law says that for each month you delay starting your Social Security benefits after full retirement age you get an extra two-thirds of 1 percent credit added to your Social Security checks. If you wait until age 70 to file, that comes out to 32 percent in additional benefits. I will occasionally say you get a 32 percent bonus. And you are right. I suppose that is the wrong term. I could call them what they are, delayed retirement credits. Or maybe I could just say extra credits. But if I occasionally slip up and use the term "bonus," I've got a hunch that 99 percent of the people reading this column would know what I mean.

Q: I have a huge problem when you call Social Security payments a "benefit" and when you refer to people getting those payments as "beneficiaries." Those terms would imply that Social Security is an insurance program. And it is not. It is a mandatory tax forced on the American people by do-gooder liberals in Washington who advocate government largesse and who abdicate personal responsibility. Call Social Security what it is: a scam! And call the people looped into this scam what they are: suckers!


A: OK. I let you get up on your soapbox and babble on. (Actually, what I presented here is a much-abbreviated version of a two-page diatribe.)

You may not like it, but Social Security is a form of insurance. After all, as pointed out in a prior question and answer, it is legally called Old Age Survivors and Disability "Insurance."

To be sure, it is a "social insurance" program, as opposed to the regular kind of insurance programs that people are used to -- life insurance, for example. It works like insurance in that you have to pay premiums into the program (in the form of payroll taxes) in order to get benefits (in the form of Social Security checks) out of the program. But unlike private insurance, there are social goals built into the Social Security program. For example, one of those goals is to help lower-income people in retirement. That goal is accomplished through a benefit formula that is skewed to give people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder a slight boost up that ladder when they retire. They don't get higher benefits, per se. But as a percentage of what they put into the program via their premiums (I mean, taxes), they get a better deal in terms of the monthly Social Security benefit checks they get.

So, people getting Social Security checks are getting monthly "benefits" and it is entirely appropriate to refer to them as "beneficiaries." I've got immediate neighbors on either side of me, both of whom have been getting Social Security checks for quite a few years now. And I have an 85-year-old neighbor just up the street whose husband recently died and who is now getting widow's benefits on his record. Next time I see them, I'll let them know what suckers they are.


If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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