Someone once said, “You are entitled to your own set of opinions, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts.” In other words, once you have all the facts about a situation, you certainly can come to your own conclusions about how you view those circumstances. But you can’t skew the facts in order to form your own foregone conclusions.

I encounter examples of this almost every day. Because Social Security is one of the biggest of all government programs, and because it impacts almost every man, woman and child in this country, its influence over Americans is enormous.

And because Social Security rules and regulations can be so complicated, it is bound to be misunderstood by many of those folks. And, finally, because Social Security is such a political touchstone, there are far too many rumors and outright lies being spread about the program. And people who are inclined to believe the worst about government will pick up on the rumors and lies and believe them to be true.

It’s what people do and how they react to the facts that I find so interesting. I will use today’s column to share some of my observances.

A woman recently wrote to complain that she couldn’t get widow’s benefits on her husband’s Social Security record because she was getting a large teacher’s pension from a state where teachers do not pay into Social Security. She wondered why teachers have been singled out for such an injustice.

I emailed her to tell her that teachers are not singled out for any injustice. Just as a Social Security retirement benefit offsets any spousal benefits due, a teacher’s retirement benefit also offsets spousal benefits. In other words, had this woman worked at a job where she paid into Social Security, her own Social Security retirement benefit would prevent her from getting a widow’s benefit from her husband’s account. Something called the government pension offset law merely treats a teacher’s pension the same way a Social Security retirement pension has always been treated.

Just coincidentally, on the same day I got the above referenced email, I received a similar email from another teacher in another state. I answered her in the same way, and I provided both teachers with a fact sheet I have written that explains the offsets in more detail.

The first teacher wrote back and thanked me for clarifying matters for her. She said she had always been led to believe that teachers were getting the short end of the Social Security stick.

But that is not what happened with the second woman. Even when presented with the facts, she was bound and determined to believe that the government was out to bilk her of her husband’s Social Security. “Everyone in government is a liar, including you,” she wrote back to me. I tried to reason with her in a few more email exchanges, to no avail. She was simply going to believe what she wanted to believe, the facts be damned!

And here is another example of how folks can react so differently when presented with the facts.

Two recent emails griped on and on about alleged corruption of the Social Security system. Both senders focused on people who came to this country illegally. One said, “What gets me is the billions of dollars we are spending on Social Security checks going to illegal immigrants who never paid a penny into the system!” The other emailer claimed to know of “hundreds of illegals just in my own town who are getting Social Security checks!”

I wrote back to both of them to tell them that despite so many rumors to the contrary, people who came to this country illegally are not getting Social Security benefits. Of course, I can’t guarantee that out of the almost 60 million people getting a Social Security check every month, a few undocumented workers might have fallen through a crack and are somehow getting benefits illegally. But every study I have ever seen shows that illegal immigrants are not ripping off the Social Security system.

In fact, many actuarial studies have pointed out that illegal immigration is actually a moneymaker for Social Security — meaning that those immigrants who somehow manage to obtain false Social Security numbers and work above the table are pumping millions of dollars into the system but never taking any money out of Social Security. (Please bear in mind the actuaries are not saying illegal immigration is good for the country. They are simply pointing out that it does paradoxically help Social Security’s bottom line.)

The first guy told me he never heard those facts and thanked me for setting him straight. The second guy refused to believe a word of it. He again reiterated that he knew of hundreds of illegal immigrants where he lived who were getting Social Security checks.

I’m guessing this guy knew he was wrong, but he was just too stubborn to admit it. As I said at the beginning of this column: Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. But we are not entitled to our own set of facts.

Tom Margenau worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years before retiring in 2005, and for many years was national director of its public information office. Email questions to him at To read past columns, go to