Who Needs Social Security?

One of the most surprising results of my serving in Vietnam was that I became a caseworker shortly after I returned home rather than accepting a banking offer or seeking out other businesses opportunities. Though I had no specific training in casework, I scored very high on the state test and with added points for being a veteran I was quickly offered a job in Aberdeen, Washington, one I readily accepted.

Like most caseworkers, I began working in Old Age Assistance and (I think) General Assistance. Although I had seen the grinding poverty in southern parts of the United States and, even more dramatically, in The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand while in the Army, naïvely, I hadn’t expected to find such poverty so close to home. America manages to hide its poor much better than the rest of the world, particularly in rural areas.

Most of the people I worked with, at least those in Old Age Assistance, had worked hard their whole lives but were unfortunate enough to live too long, to live until resources were dwarfed by inflation or until a mate had died and they no longer drew two pensions. Most of these people drew very little Social Security because there had been no Social Security when they had started working. What pensions they drew were usually “company pensions,” which provided a fixed income. As a result, many were trying to live on 40’s wages in the late 60’s. With an inflation rate often approaching 18%, they would have starved without government aid unless neighbors were willing to feed them and pay utility bills.

Almost invariably they were blue-collar workers or wives of blue-collar workers. Because it was Aberdeen, Washington, many of them were retired loggers, workers who had earned good wages when they were working, though logging is both seasonal and cyclical. Although many of my clients owned their own homes, they did not have savings (If they had savings, they weren’t eligible for OAA).

In fact, if you were going to blame my clients for being on “welfare,” you’d have to blame them for not having saved enough during their working years. All those years they didn’t have Social Security deducted automatically from their salary they should have been putting 10% (their 5% and their employer’s 5%) of their income into savings so that they could retire comfortably. Not sure how they would have done that during the winter or other periods when they were unemployed, but it’s tough to see that retirement is more important than a meal out once a month, or more important than a vacation every 5 years. Do you put money in retirement or help your kid go through a JC or 4-year college?

I suppose you could have blamed them because they were only blue-collar workers; they should have studied harder and gone to college. Heck, many of them hadn’t even finished high school, dropping out at 16 to get a real job to help pay the bills. Times have changed, and a college education wasn’t required to make a good living in those days. I’m not sure how much money today’s college graduates will be able to sock away for retirement when they’ll be required to pay off thousands of dollars in student loans for years after they graduate.

Social Security has finally eliminated Old Age Assistance. Because so many people don’t think about old age until it’s too late, the government requires automatic saving from the wage earner throughout his/her earning years and requires his/her employer to contribute an equal amount to his retirement. Social Security not only helps the wage earner in the long run, it also saves taxpayers money by not requiring them to support those people who can no longer work but who haven’t saved enough money to live on their retirement income and savings. The money most people received from Old Age Assistance was considerably less than the amount they now receive from Social Security. Unlike assistance, they (and their employers) have earned Social Security, at least they have if the government hasn’t frittered away the money they put into the system. Equally important, they don’t have to feel demeaned because they are “on welfare” and aren’t “charity cases.”

No one is going to live well on Social Security alone, but they’re not going to starve, either, and, more importantly, for those who are only concerned with how much they pay in taxes, taxpayers are not on the hook for them, either. Although Americans seem willing to put up with the elderly having to wait on them at fast-food joints during the day and having them greet them at the door in Wal-Mart, I doubt most Americans are willing to see large numbers of seniors forced to sleep in doorways or beg on the street as I saw in a number of third-world countries.

Unfortunately, in our current economy more and more old people may have to rely on Social Security for their sole source of income. Fewer American companies offer traditional retirement programs (which, considering their recent track record, is not necessarily a bad thing), which means a lot more Americans will be responsible for providing their own retirement plan. If the past is any indication, and it’s the only one we have, more Americans will reach retirement age without the kind of investments needed to provide for themselves. It certainly doesn’t take long to search the internet and confirm that we are approaching a retirement crisis (not surprisingly, the conservative Newmax seems to be the lone dissenter on this issue. Wonder what their position is on Social Security?#!)

Even though the company my wife works for will match 401 donations up to a certain percentage, she notes that far too many of the workers aren’t doubling their money by putting it into retirement.

I also saw some very troubling signs when I worked as a tax preparer for H&R Block after I retired from teaching. Whenever there was a recession people were cashing in their 401K’s, even though they ended up paying a 10% penalty for doing so. Some of the time it seemed they could’ve tightened their belts and gotten by on unemployment benefits instead of cashing in their retirement, but often it was difficult to disagree with their strategy when they were in danger of losing their house or were simply unable to pay their current obligations without using their savings.

Considering how much worse the latest recession has been, particularly for older workers, it seems likely that an even greater percentage of workers must have withdrawn funds from their 401K funds in recent years. I find it amazing/appalling with so many indications that people are having a harder and harder time saving for retirement that there are so many calls from Republicans and their supporters to cut back, privatize, or totally cut Social Security.

Even for those who have considerable wealth, Social Security serves as a safety net in a worst-case scenario. Why, then, is the Republican Party so set on limiting or eliminating Social Security, especially when a large majority of the public actually opposes their actions? The only motivation that really makes sense to me is that businesses want to eliminate their 7.5% share of Social Security. As a tax preparer it was not uncommon to run into companies that were unlawfully treating employees as Self-Employed workers to avoid paying those costs to the government (the Self-Employed worker was required to pay both his usual amount and what would have been his employer’s share of Social Security). I imagine profits would take a considerable jump if Social Security could somehow be eliminated, and what company wouldn’t welcome a 7% increase in profits?

Personally, I thought this battle had been won nearly a hundred years ago when it was passed by the Roosevelt administration. It allowed workers who could no longer physically compete with younger workers to retire at reduced wages while providing younger workers with jobs at a time when job opportunities were scarce. People don’t seem to age as rapidly now as they did in the 30’s, but the ones least capable of working past 65, physical laborers, are the ones who are most apt to need Social Security, and the ones whose low wages have made it hardest to set aside money for retirement. Of course, they wield the least political power and, thus, are the ones least apt to have their needs met.

I taught high school for 30 years and was finally exhausted by the challenge and was beginning to have as hard a time identifying with the sons and daughters of students I had taught when I began teaching as they were of identifying with my values. The stress of the job was beginning to affect my health, but I could have continued to teach for several more years if necessary. Luckily, my house was mostly paid for, I’d saved some money, my pension was enough that I could survive on it until I could draw social security, and I was able to work part time as a tax preparer to earn money so that I could do more than just survive. If I had to survive on Social Security alone, I would have continued working because I want more from life than mere survival. After contributing to Social Security for 40 years, I was always counting on it as a part of my retirement. I don’t know many middle class people who aren’t counting on it so that they can do more than merely survive in their senior years.

Thank God for a mandatory retirement saving plan. I doubt I would have had the foresight to start saving for retirement when I started teaching when there never seemed quite enough money to meet the needs of two growing children. It’s hard for anyone who’s 25 to really imagine that they are ever going to retire, even though it seems just like yesterday when I look back at those times.

8 thoughts on “Who Needs Social Security?

  1. A finely wrought discourse on the situation, being extremely well organized and developed. I especially like how you wove in your own work experience, as you neared the end of your career and were contemplating retirement from teaching.

    Should be required reading for all who call themselves citizens of this country.

    • Thanks. The ex-teacher in me doesn’t love “required reading,” but I hope it convinces some people that Social Security is important to all of us.

      By the way, love your gravatar.

      • My little bird is from a mural I painted many years ago in a house I recently sold. She sits perched in a peach-blossom tree. Thankfully, I took numerous photos of the work over the years and have them to look back on and take inspiration from when I turn to my next painting project.

        Coming from one who has shared so many lovely bird images with us over the years, I take your compliment as high praise.

        As to required reading, I meant it in the sense of its value as a primary source document. You offer a vivid description of a period that for many people may seem incomprehensible in any meaningful way. And yet it is not that far removed from our current time and its challenges.

        As you note, America is quite adept at hiding its poor.

  2. In addition to Social Security, we put money aside for a rainy day and then the rainy day turned into weeks and months and all the savings went kaput. Thank God for SS now, as we would be in a very bad place without it.

    • Living in the Pacific Northwest, I certainly understand “rainy days.” There’s a reason the “blues” are so popular, isn’t there? For awhile in my life my theme song was Ray Charles’ “If it Wasn’t for Bad Luck I Wouldn’t Have No Luck At All.”

  3. Why eliminate Social Security? I don’t think it’s the corporations wanting to do so because of the money they have to contribute. I think it’s more a general anti-government bias, and also many banks et al believe they’ll get a juicy shot of money with people putting this money into their greedy hands.

    • Could be. There’s more than enough anti-government bias to go around. And greed seems to be the main motivator in this Christian Nation of ours.

What do you think?