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The myth of the notch

The facts: Benefits for folks born in the notch are calculated the same way as everyone's, and the group is unlikely to receive the government compensation they seek.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published November 30, 2004


Perhaps they are the greatest generation.

Americans in their 70s and 80s survived a Depression, fought the fascists and built the country into an industrial marvel.

There is no joy in debunking one of their most enduring myths. Nor is there any point in soft-pedaling it:

The "notch" is baloney.

Yup. The emperor has no clothes. Those lights over the New Mexico desert were really weather balloons. And millions of "notch babies" were not singled out for discrimination.

Their Social Security benefits are calculated in the same basic fashion as those of every retiree who followed them. In fact, some notch babies get an extra benefit. Most important, Congress will never pay notch babies the $5,000 bonus that fundraising charlatans dangle before them as bait.

If you are a "notch baby" - born between 1917 and 1926 - you know what I'm talking about.

For everyone else, here's the MYTH of the notch:

Congress made a mistake almost 35 years ago that inadvertently lowered Social Security benefits by as much as $200 for people born from 1917 to 1926. Older retirees made out better, as did younger retirees. The government, being too cheap to fix this mistake, is waiting for notch babies to die so the problem will fade away.

For 15 years, this myth has been perpetrated by mass-mail organizations that promise to lobby Congress to raise benefits for notch babies. And oh, by the way, these solicitors say, please send $10 or $20 or $50 so they can continue this important work.

Though nonpartisan experts have repeatedly concluded that no such injustice occurred, the fundraising drumbeat persists enough that a whole generation of Americans now distrusts the very government they defended.

Here's what really happened:

In the early 1970s, Congress did tinker with Social Security's cost-of-living increase with disastrous results. Benefits rose too quickly and the Social Security system was sinking pell-mell toward bankruptcy. In 1977, Congress revamped the benefit formula again - this time to a lower, more sustainable level.

People who already had reached retirement age - those born in 1916 or earlier - were allowed to keep the generous benefits inadvertently bestowed upon them. In other words, they got a windfall.

People who hadn't yet reached retirement age - those born in 1917 and beyond - receive benefits according to the new, lower formula. To ease the transition, Congress gave an extra boost to people born from 1917 through 1921. Those born in 1917 made out particularly well, compared with most retiree groups that followed. For example, the average benefit in 2004 for someone born in 1917 is $1,065 a month. That's higher than for six birth years that came after the notch.

Where's the injustice?

Nevertheless, one kernel of truth sustains the myth of notch unfairness.

Notch babies always seem to know someone born before them or after them who gets $100 or $200 more per month, even though their work histories are similar.

That's true, but it's also true of every retiree group born between 1917 and 1936. The notch group was not singled out. Here's why:

Social Security benefits are based on wages that people earn during their working life. Since wages tend to rise over time, so do benefits when each birth group retires. Virtually every birth year receives a little more than previous birth years. Therefore, every retiree knows younger people with higher retirement checks.

Likewise, just about everybody can find someone born in 1915 or 1916 who receives a higher benefit. That's because the windfall benefits to the 1916 group were so high that it took 20 years of rising wages for other groups to catch up. It wasn't until the 1937 birth group retired two years ago that benefits finally topped the 1916 group's bonanza.

John Rother, AARP's policy director, draws a good analogy about the prenotch windfall.

"Suppose you are standing in line at the ATM and the two people in front of you got $20 bills when they were supposed to get $10. When you come to your turn, you get the correct amount. Is that an injustice? That's what notch babies are saying. They are saying they should get more than Congress intended because Congress made an error and paid too much to the people in front of them."

Congressmen have heard all about the notch. Over the years, a few lawmakers have introduced bills to give more money to notch babies. Some bills have enlisted as many as 100 co-sponsors. But don't be deceived. That is window-dressing to placate angry, frustrated constituents. It gives the appearance that benefits might rise when, in truth, few lawmakers want a serious vote. Notch bills always languish in committee.

A bipartisan study commission reported in 1994 that there was no injustice. "Notch reform" bills would cost billions at a time when Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security already groan under financial strain.

More important, such legislation would create a true injustice where none exists. Consider the "Notch Fairness Act," introduced in 2003, which would make a lump-sum payment of $5,000 to everyone born 1917 through 1926, regardless of their Social Security benefit.

Under this bill, a person born in 1926 who receives $1,200 a month in Social Security would get the one-time bonus of $5,000, while a person born one year later who receives $400 a month would get no bonus. Both retirees' benefits were calculated with the same formula, so what possibly could be "fair" about rewarding the retiree who already gets more?

Like other notch bills, the Notch Fairness Act somehow never seems to come to a floor vote.

Yes, notch babies came of working age during the Depression, when wages were lower. Many receive shamefully stingy Social Security checks that have been ravaged by inflation. But the same goes for poor people born in later years. Should we reward the World War II generation but ignore the Korean War generation? Democracy won't stand for favoring one group over another based solely on birth year.

The hitch with notch pleas

The fact that average wages in some years were historically higher or lower than average wages in other years is no basis for tinkering with individual benefits.

Consider this: Wages in the South historically were lower than wages in the industrial North and Midwest. Should Congress give a $5,000 boost just to Southern retirees? That makes as much sense as favoring one birth year over another because of average wage levels.

Notch bills will never pass Congress, nor should they.

Which brings us to the people who want your money.

The myth of notch unfairness first was propagated by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a lobbying group that installed FDR's son, James Roosevelt, as its titular head.

For years, the National Committee weaseled $20 and $50 donations from notch babies, vowing to get them extra dough, which of course never happened.

In recent years, the National Committee has progressed to more legitimate issues while the notch banner has been resurrected by the TREA Senior Citizens League. According to IRS documents, the Senior Citizens League raised $46-million from 1997 through 2000.

One ploy was a "Notch Victim Register," which seemed to imply that signing up could somehow grease the skids as soon as a notch reform bill passed - as if the Social Security Administration would ever work through the Senior Citizens League.

"They had us suckers believing we were to get $5,000," says Weeki Wachee resident Lawrence Kramer, born in 1924, who sent the Senior Citizens League $10 donations until he became disillusioned.

Three years ago, the TREA Senior Citizens League came under congressional investigation after thousands of bogus fliers appeared in churches, nursing homes and community centers.

One flier, disseminated at black churches, promised $5,000 in "slavery reparations" if people would sign up with the TREA Senior Citizens League's "National Victim's Registrar." Another flier said, "You may be entitled to receive $5,000 due to inequities in your Social Security payments . . . Social Security will not contact "notch babies,' so they should write to the National Victim Register."

Both fliers directed people to mail their personal information to the Senior Citizens League's post office.

TREA Senior Citizens League disavowed authorship of the fliers, saying a misguided supporter must have distributed them. But when people wrote in, they received a standard TREA solicitation brochure.

TREA is a not-for-profit organization that lobbies Congress on many issues, including prescription drugs and Medicare reform, notes legislative director Patricia Gaul. Years of unpassed notch legislation doesn't preclude success down the road, she says.

"There have seen several bills and programs that are now law that many people said "would never be' - including Medicare, which took about 20 years to enact, and TRICARE health care for military personnel," Gaul says. "We ardently believe that the notch is an issue of fairness for seniors."

So . . . coming soon, to a mailbox near you, more notch solicitations.

If you have contributed to notch organizations in the past, chances are you are frustrated and angry with the government. Social Security checks stretch thinner and thinner each year. Cost-of-living increases rarely keep pace with expenses. Unless you enjoy a big pension or hefty savings, you might struggle to make ends meet.

But don't blame the notch.

Social Security checks may be meager, but they are fundamentally fair.

-- Steve Nohlgren can be reached at 727 893-8442, toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8442, or by e-mail at nohlgren@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 23, 2004, 17:00:14]


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