At least once a day, I get one or more emails that start out with some form of this phrase: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Social Security!” And then they go on from there to trot out time-worn arguments that have been bandied about for years and are usually groundless.
One of the more common gripes goes like this: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Social Security. They’ve added too many perks to the program over the years. If they would just get rid of the goody bag and take the system back to what it was when it started, we wouldn’t have any problems today!” Or, as another reader recently told me: “Today’s Social Security program includes too many freebies for freeloaders! We need to get back to basics — to the law’s original intent!”
Well, let’s think about that for a minute. The original Social Security Act, passed in 1935, included retirement benefits for people 65 and older who were totally retired. That’s it. Period. Nothing else!
So, if these “back to basics” naysayers had their way, that means we would have no early retirement benefits at age 62. Those millions of people getting early retirement benefit could kiss their checks goodbye because they are in the “goody bag.”
It also would mean we would not pay benefits to anyone 65 and older if they were still working. The original Social Security law required that you must be completely retired to collect benefits. So, tough luck for all the working seniors out there. Your benefits are also in the “goody bag.”
Oh, and there would be no extra bonus for people who delay taking benefits until a later age. Millions of seniors currently plan to work until 70 in order to get a 32% bonus added to their checks. Emptying the “goody bag” would mean turning off that incentive to delay retirement.
There also would be no benefits for spouses, widows or widowers. And if a young worker dies and leaves small children, tough luck. No government benefits for them. All these spousal and survivor benefits are in the “goody bag.”
And there would be no disability benefits. So, if you have a heart attack at age 60, that’s just too bad. You would just have to wait until you are 65 to collect your Social Security, assuming you live that long.
I could go on and on. There are tens of millions of people getting Social Security benefits today who would not qualify for anything under the original Social Security law. Are all those people getting superfluous and unnecessary benefits out of a governmental giveaway “goody bag”? Or has the Social Security program evolved over the years to meet the changing needs of our society?
I think that’s an important point that needs to be made. Social Security did not expand over the years because Congress was looking for ways to hand out “freebies to freeloaders.” The program changed because there were legitimate needs that people had and that a caring, compassionate society needed to provide. That’s why, today, we have Social Security benefits for working seniors, spouses, widows, orphaned children, divorced women and disabled workers.
In fact, let’s take a brief look at the legislative history of Social Security. It will be an abbreviated look because Congress passes amendments to the Social Security law almost every year. But most of those are relatively minor or technical changes that have no significant impact on the program or the benefits paid. Instead, here is a short list of the major amendments to the Social Security Act and what those changes brought.
The original 1935 Social Security Act: provided benefits for retirees at age 65 and nothing else.
1939 Social Security amendments: added benefits for dependent wives age 65 and older and for the minor children of retirees. Also added benefits to widows age 65 and older and to surviving minor children. Included benefits for widows at any age if caring for a minor child.
1950 Social Security amendments: added benefits for dependent husbands age 65 and older, and widowers age 65 and older.
1956 Social Security amendments: lowered the age at which a woman can get retirement benefits to 62. Also lowered the age at which a husband or wife can get spousal or widows benefits to 62. Added disability benefits to disabled workers between ages 50 and 64.
1960 Social Security amendments: expanded disability benefits to a disabled worker of any age as long as he or she was “insured.”
1961 Social Security amendments: lowered the age at which a man can get retirement benefits to 62. Also lowered the widower’s age to 62.
1965 Social Security amendments: lowered the age at which a woman can get widows benefits to 60. Added benefits for surviving children between ages 18 and 21. Added benefits for divorced women if they were married for 20 years. Also added the Medicare program.
1968 Social Security amendments: lowered the age at which a woman could collect widows benefits to 50 if she was disabled.
1977 Social Security amendments: lowered the duration of marriage requirement for divorced spouses from 20 years to 10 years.
1983 Social Security amendments: raised the retirement age to 67 over a 50-year period. Children’s benefits eliminated for those ages 18-21. Added benefits for fathers caring for minor children.
This is just a summary of the major Social Security amendments. There have also been many technical amendments. In fact, one set of those in the 1990s led to the infamous maximizing loophole that really was something for the “goody bag.” It allowed many middle- and upper-class seniors to file for “dependent” benefits on a spouse’s Social Security record while saving their own retirement benefits until age 70. That loophole was shut down. Or, to be more precise, you had to be age 66 before Jan. 2, 2020, to use the loophole.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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