Did Lyndon Johnson Steal From the Social Security Trust Fund?

The author says that a pervasive online myth is that Lyndon Johnson stole money from the Social Security trust fund in order to pay for the Vietnam war.

The debate about Social Security reform contains a certain amount of myth which has been accepted mostly through volume rather than fact. One of the most pervasive legends in the Social Security debate suggests that President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) stole the trust fund in order to pay for Vietnam.

The Social Security Administration responds directly to this claim. The Social Security Trust Fund has never been “put into the general fund of the government.” For this myth to be fact, it would require a 50 year conspiracy that crosses administrations, political parties, and ideologies. The only word in the English language to describe this suspicion is crazy.

Yet, this belief about LBJ is so widespread that the Social Security Administration has included it on its internet myths page. And the audience isn’t an isolated conspiracy cult. For example, former Senator Jim DeMint wrote in one of his books Now Or Never, “Raiding the Social Security Trust Fund was a precedent set in 1968 by another progressive president, Lyndon B. Johnson, to help pay for the Vietnam War.”

The myth seems connected to LBJ’s proposal to move Social Security into the Federal budget. In short, yes LBJ recommended that the budget process should include the revenue and expense of Social Security. No, his recommendation did not actually move any money from Social Security. You might consider this distinction like filing a 1040 jointly with a spouse. While the 1040 form reports income and expense of both spouses, it does not move any money between accounts.

“A Presidential commission composed of distinguished congressional fiscal leaders and other prominent Americans recommended this year that we adopt a new budget approach. I am carrying out their recommendations in this year’s budget. This budget, therefore, for the first time accurately covers all Federal expenditures and all Federal receipts, including for the first time in one budget $47 billion from the social security, Medicare, highway, and other trust funds.” 

~ State Of The Union 1968

This mythos unravels over multiple layers. LBJ’s term as president expired before Social Security was moved into the Unified Budget process. There is no historical record of any money moving improperly out of the Social Security Trust Fund. And even there were a paper trail of money moving, the sums in the Trust Fund during the time of LBJ were relatively very small.

At the time, Social Security was a pay-as-you-go system, leaving almost nothing for LBJ to steal. Prior to 1983, the excess cash collected by the system in any year peaked at 5.5 billion in 1969 which is roughly $37.5 billion in today’s money. At the time, the entire balance of the Trust Fund was less than $29 billion, roughly 190 billion in 2014 dollars. In contrast, the Trust Fund today is worth roughly $2.8 trillion and throws off more than $100 billion in interest alone each year.

Beyond the denial of the Social Security Administration, Snopes dismisses the possibility. FactCheck rejects the possibility. All of these sources reach basically the same conclusion: the process which governs the movement of money hasn’t changed since 1939. When payroll taxes exceed the cost of benefits, the excess cash is invested in government securities. This is no different from a private pension buying government securities, only the government gives Social Security slightly better terms.

Millions of people depend upon Social Security.  The system has massive financial imbalances.  Yet the nation conducts the debate in cliché and hyperbole such that the more you type the righter you are.

About the Author

Brenton Smith (A.K.A. Joe The Economist) writes nationally on the issue of Social Security reform with work appearing in Forbes, FedSmith.com, MarketWatch, TheHill.com, and regional media like The Denver Post.