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A Life Worthy Of Social Security

For most political junkies, today is significant because President Obama will be giving the State of the Union address tonight. For me, it is significant because it is my mother’s birthday. All the talk going around, at least until yesterday, that suggested President Obama might use tonight’s occasion to broach the possibility of cutting Social Security benefits for future retirees had me thinking about my mother, and the thousands of ex-schoolteachers like her in my home town who are enjoying their golden years.

Maybe none of our esteemed politicians and think tank economists who come up with these half baked ideas have any relatives who are old. Maybe none of them have any loved ones who dedicated their lives to public service, receiving modest wages for their work in return for a financially secure retirement.

I do.

What bothers me the most about this is the way my very own President Obama, who seems to have a pretty good grasp of the way our economy works, and some level of understanding about how all its moving parts work together, has fallen hook, line and sinker for the short-sided political view of our nation’s most efficient stimulus program.

The Social Security funding formula itself is so simple, middle school children could administer it. It is not subjective or exclusionary. And despite all the years of messaging and hundreds of millions of dollars spent by conservative interests that have been poured into permanently marrying the word “entitlement” to “social security”, it is and has always been primarily an old age insurance policy that is designed to pay off if you live long enough.  

The states regulate private insurance companies pretty well – when was the last time you heard of someone whose life insurance policy didn’t pay out its scheduled benefits? The problem with Social Security is an actuarial problem. In fact, if you ignore the emotional rhetoric and look at the actual numbers involved, the amount of additional payroll tax money necessary on a per capita basis to close the 2% gap between the 75 year projected Social Security payouts and its 75 year projected revenues is negligible – about $16 for someone who makes $800 a week if their employer doesn’t share in the cost.

What would life look like if there was no Social Security program? Bob Herbert pointed out today in his column over at the New York Times that half of all Social Security recipients have no other form of retirement income. To look at this statistic another way, these are the people who would also be least likely to save the 12% or 14% of their income they would have if it went into their pockets instead of paying for the cost of old age insurance. This insurance program, which does not add to the debt or deficit, is one of the stabilizing influences in our national economy, dampening the effects of this recession as well as the others the United States has weathered since the 30’s.

As one of Herbert’s commenters pointed out, “Conservatives rail about the cost of social programs, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them suggest how our society should ensure a minimal standard of living for the millions of ordinary people, whose efforts helped build this country. It seems they would just put all those who are past their earning years onto ice floes and send them into oblivion.”

President Obama, if it took your handlers to help you see that you were headed down the wrong path on this issue, then maybe the public hasn’t been vocal enough in telling you that on this issue you are wrong. Because there are people, like my mother, who are young teachers or public servants just starting out today, who may not ever make enough money to accumulate more than a modest savings account balance, who deserve the same kind of old age insurance my mother enjoys.

I will call my mother after I post this piece this morning to wish her a happy birthday. But she may not be in. She may be at a board meeting for the daycare center attached to her church that serves children whose mothers can’t go to work without some sort of subsidized childcare. Or she may be at her hair dressers, a woman in her eighties who has kept school teachers and ex-school teachers looking good for decades. Or she may be at lunch with some of the members of her college alumni club.

Mr. President, if my mother hasn’t lived a life worthy of the social security insurance, whose premiums she willing paid while teaching thousands upon thousands of students over thirty eight long years, I don’t know who the hell does.  

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