When my father died, my mother brothers and I received survivors benefits based on whatever he had put into the fund while he was alive and working. Given that he was only thirty three when he died I suspect that it was never very much, but it definitely kept us afloat until each of us turned eighteen years old. We never qualified for what was commonly called welfare or food stamps but I feel certain that some people might have been a bit disturbed that we got that even that small extra boost from Social Security given the hullabaloos that arise surrounding that program over and over again. Now there seem to be renewed threats to cut government costs by either eliminating or restricting the Social Security program in various ways.
When I was earning my master’s degree I took a course in compensation. It was an eye opening experience particularly with regard to Social Security. The professor informed us that the program had long ago stopped working the way it had been initially designed to operate. He pointed out that when Social Security was born in the days of President Franklin Roosevelt actuaries had determined that the average age of death in the United States was somewhere in the mid to late sixties. Thus the age at which people were expected to actually collect their benefits was designed in the belief that most people who might have qualified would already be dead. In other words there was never any intent to pay out to everyone who had invested their money in the program.
I don’t know how true my professor’s statements had been but I found it both enlightening and shocking to think that much of the reason that the Social Security program always seems to be in trouble is because Congress has not regularly increased the age at which benefits might begin. Only reluctantly have they slowly moved the age for full benefits to sixty seven years and now there are loud whispers that maybe seventy might be a better age for full benefits.
Perhaps this is indeed true, but our national dilemma regarding Social Security is based on how long people are now living because of improved medical care in our country. Because people are generally healthier these days does not mean that they are capable of working at more and more advanced ages. So many jobs would be exceedingly difficult for senior citizens to perform. There is a big difference between sitting at a desk performing tasks all day and engaging in manual labor or even performing duties like those that nurses and teachers must do. Jobs that require incredible energy and physical involvement become more and more difficult after a certain age with few exceptions.
We all know individuals who seem to defy time with their energy and ability to work well into their eighties. My grandfather was still working at NASA when he was eighty eight. It was only when someone discovered him climbing ladders and realizing how old he was that he was politely asked to leave. Few others would have been able to work as long as he did. He lived to the ripe old age of one hundred eight and was still installing panelling and doing major repairs in his home. Few among us remain so able to maintain our youthful abilities to work long hours.
So the elephant in the room remains how to keep Social Security programs going for the benefit of the elderly, the widows, the children of deceased parents and the disabled. It’s a daunting task, but suddenly deciding to toss it out is not the answer. Perhaps we need higher contributions from every worker, especially the wealthiest among us. We can also consider creating bonuses for those who are able and choose to work to older ages. We might also think about studying all of the exceptions inherent in the tangled rules for the purpose of streamlining them.
We seem to be at a juncture in which we want to have our cake and eat it too. We have become a society that prizes wealth and conspicuous consumption all too much. Perhaps it is time that each of us dial back our spending and our unwillingness to pay more now for good benefits later.
I just today completed a lesson in gross versus net income with one of my students (Yes. I am still working on a very limited basis.) I spoke of various deductions as well as the cost of saving versus borrowing to fund today’s desires. My student was shocked to learn about financial realities and she even commented that she would be able to save a great deal because she is not particularly interested in unnecessary clothing or expensive foods. She mentioned that she enjoys life as her family lives it now with vacations to see relatives, cars that are slightly used, and visits to discount and thrift stores that provide many of their needs. At a young age she is excited about living a simple life. Maybe therein lies the secret to having a safety net for everyone.
If we learn how to do with less, if we are willing to contribute more and if we can push ourselves to work a bit longer then perhaps we can save Social Security for another generation We may also want to welcome the immigrants who are doing so much of the heavy duty manual work in our country today. We will need them in the future just as our country once needed workers from China and Italy and all parts of the world just like my grandparents from Slovakia. If we join in saving Social Security for all instead of for only certain groups we may find an equitable way to insure that people will be okay after a lifetime of working. With a bit of sacrifice children of deceased earners and the disabled will not go hungry. I can’t think of any cause that is more laudable, but then, like my student, I have come to realize how little I actually need. I understand the importance of keeping our safety net intact.