Op-Ed, 595 words

Happy Birthday, Social Security

For millions of Americans, it's the line of demarcation between sustainability and abject poverty.

David Elliot

Social Security, created by FDR in the midst of the Great Depression, recently turned 75.

If she were a person, this 75-year-old would probably appreciate the monthly check, which keeps 13 million elderly Americans out of poverty.

Myself, I’m several decades away from being able to collect retirement benefits, which make up the largest part of the Social Security program. But, like millions of Americans who haven’t yet reached retirement, Social Security has touched my life. Because I too once depended on that monthly check.

My parents paid into Social Security–in fact, in a bit of irony, one of my father’s jobs was with the Social Security Administration, maintaining computers that must have been the size of cement trucks–and about as speedy!

Both parents died when we were young–and years before they would have began collecting out of Social Security what they paid in. But after my brother, sister, and I were adopted, the check that came once a month helped feed us, clothe us, and keep a roof over our heads.

The check kept coming when I was in college. But it grew smaller and smaller. That’s because in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Congress decided to rein in expenses by ending the survivors’ benefits program for those of us attending college whose parents had died when we were young.

That was OK; I earned money washing dishes and busing tables at a restaurant, and my tuition at the University of Texas at Austin was dirt cheap. By then I could earn my way.

But for millions of Americans–some retired, some disabled, and some survivors of those who paid into the system–Social Security is the line of demarcation between sustainability and abject poverty.

As we brace for yet another attempt to reduce benefits, it’s important to remember the principles upon which this promise to America was founded. Social Security belongs to the workers and their families who have worked hard, paid into the system with their tax dollars, and earned its benefits. Social Security didn’t cause the federal deficit. Its benefits shouldn’t be cut to reduce the deficit.

Yes, I have my own Social Security story to share. But so do millions of Americans, and some stories are much more moving and profound–and span several generations.

I was reminded of this recently while reading a speech that my boss, USAction President William McNary, gave some years ago when we helped lead the successful effort to defeat President George W. Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security. (Given what happened to the stock market in 2008, can you imagine the damage that would have ensued had Bush succeeded?)

In his speech, McNary recalled his parents. They only lived for three years after they were able to start collecting retirement benefits–but during those three years, Social Security made up 90 percent of their income and kept them from hunger.

McNary’s first wife died of breast cancer when she was 35, leaving him with three young children. Because she had paid into the Social Security fund, a check came in the mail once a month, until all three children turned 18. That monthly check enabled the family to save their precious dollars, and McNary was able to send his children to college.

“A Social Security card is more than just a document,” McNary says. “It’s more than just a card with your name on it that you carry around in your wallet. Social Security is a promise from one generation to the next–a promise that we cannot allow this generation to break.”

So happy birthday, Social Security. And here’s to many more.

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David Elliot is communications director for USAction, which is actively opposing attempts to decrease Social Security benefits. www.usaction.org