Social Security Paid Out 0.006 Percent of Benefits to Dead People

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Monday, 04 November 2013 07:33

That's what the headline of the front page Washington Post story might have read if the purpose was to inform readers. Instead the lengthy piece (which covers the whole back page) told readers that Social Security paid out $133 million in benefits to people who were dead over the last three years.

While it is useful to weed out such improper payments, this piece likely led many readers to wrongly conclude that such payments are a major cost to the program. They are not. Nothing about the finances of Social Security would be noticeably changed if the amount of such improper payments were immediately reduced to zero.

If the Washington Post followed the NYT's commitment to putting big numbers in context, it would have expressed $133 million as a share of the $2102 billion paid out in benefits over the relevant time frame. That way readers would realize that these mistakes have little impact on the program's financial condition.