You are probably reading this column sometime in early October, which is when I always think of my mom. Her birthday was Oct. 1. She’s been dead for about 20 years now. But when I think of her, two things I remember involve her relationship with Social Security.
The first is just a cute story. I started working for the Social Security Administration in 1973. I was with the agency for only about two weeks, and was still in training class, when my mother’s mother, my grandma, died. I went home for the funeral and, of course, was surrounded by scores of my grandma’s relatives and friends, many of whom were older folks on Social Security. And my mother proudly introduced me to them as “my son, the Social Security expert.” I was inundated with what seemed like a hundred questions about retirement benefits, widow’s benefits, Medicare benefits and all other elements of the government’s retirement and health insurance programs.
With all of 10 days of training under my belt, I somehow managed to stumble my way through some dubious answers to their questions. If someone had told me then that someday I would be writing a nationally syndicated question and answer column about Social Security, I would have laughed in their face!
The second memory of my mom is a bit of a parable about Social Security. It’s the story of her and the lady who lived next door to us. It involves the sometimes strained relationship between working women and stay-at-home moms (which I won’t touch with a 10-foot pole) and their experiences with Social Security (which I will address). It’s also a story of the haves and have-nots. I’ve told this tale before in my column, but it bears repeating.
I grew up in a small Midwestern town where rich folks in big houses lived very near poor folks occupying much more modest dwellings. My dad was a janitor struggling to make ends meet. My mother had to work to help pay the mortgage and keep enough groceries on the table to feed me and my three siblings.
Just behind our house across the alley was a big home, owned by the vice president of a local bank. His wife, even though she had a degree in journalism, never worked outside the home once the first of an eventual brood of six children came along.
My brothers and sister and I got along famously with the children of the banker and his wife. We were always playing games, shooting baskets or otherwise just hanging out. On the other hand, our parents rarely spoke. I guess the economic and educational gulf between them was just too great to foster any kind of meaningful relationship.
And that gulf only widened later in life between my mom and the neighbor lady after both of them became widows. Sadly, most of the friction and resentment came from my mom’s side of the alley. And much of it had to do with Social Security.
Before I go on, I must point out this general Social Security tenet. The rules say that if you are due two Social Security benefits, you don’t get them both. You only get an amount equal to the one that pays the higher rate.
My mom’s situation was a good example of that. Because she had worked most of her life, she received her own Social Security retirement benefit. The widow’s rate she was due on my dad’s Social Security account was only slightly higher than her own. That meant she kept getting her own benefit, but she got a small bump in her monthly checks from my dad’s side of the Social Security ledger.
Across the alley, the neighbor lady received no benefits on her own Social Security account, but she did get a rather substantial widow’s benefit from her deceased banker husband. It was quite a bit more than my mother received from her combined accounts.
And this peeved my mother to no end. Sadly, she lived the rest of her life bearing deep resentment, partly to her neighbor, and partly to the Social Security system that allowed what she perceived to be this injustice to happen. I can still hear her griping: “THAT WOMAN never worked a day in her life. And there she is in that big house, getting more money each month from the government than me, a woman who worked hard all her life just trying to make ends meet!”
I used to ask my mom this: “If you believe things are unfair, what do you think we should do about it? Should we take widow’s benefits away from Mrs. (X) because you don’t think she deserves them?”
My mother might get a nasty little gleam in her eye with that thought, but she always admitted that the neighbor was due her widow’s benefits.
My mom would counter with this: “I think I should get my own full Social Security benefit AND my own full widow’s benefit. After all, I worked and paid for my Social Security, and your dad worked and paid for his Social Security!”
On the surface, it seems like a valid point. In fact, I’ve heard thousands of working women make the same argument over the years.
But here is the flip side of that coin: If working women can get their own retirement benefits and full spousal benefits, then shouldn’t working men be offered the same? For example, why can’t I get my own Social Security retirement benefit and at the same time collect husband’s benefits on my wife’s Social Security account?
Or here is another example. I have a neighbor who is a widower. He was an executive with a large corporation. His wife was a librarian. They each got their own Social Security. But his benefit was much larger than hers. Now that she is gone, should he be allowed to get his own rather generous Social Security check and a dependent widower’s benefit from his wife’s Social Security?
The truth is: Social Security spousal and survivor benefits have always been classified as “dependent’s” benefits. They are meant to be paid to a lower-earning (or no-earning) spouse who was financially dependent on the higher-income spouse. They were never meant to be some kind of add-on marital bonus.
Indeed, the Social Security system would have gone bankrupt decades ago if we were doing that!