My sister lives in a home she inherited from my mother after my mom died in the early 1990s. She was recently cleaning out the basement, and in a far corner, she found a box my mom had labeled, “Tom’s writings.” It was full of essays and other reports I’d written while in grade school, high school and college. There were also clippings of Social Security-related articles I wrote long before I started writing this weekly column.
My sister sent the box to me. And going through it brought back many memories from my early days working for the Social Security Administration. I’m going to share two of them .
In my mom’s box was 1973 newspaper clipping that generated a letter to the editor from me. It was the story about some university economists who said that “people under 35 have absolutely no chance of collecting Social Security.” Their advice to young people was to “avoid the system if you can and save for your old age on your own.” The story included the picture of a 30-something mother burning her Social Security card .
That faded clipping was yellowing around the edges. I thought that was entirely appropriate. (“Yellow journalism” — get it?) What a pile of hooey that story was. I hope the economists cited in the article lost their tenure .
Well, actually, they might deserve a small amount of credit if their advice to “save for your old age on your own” encouraged some readers to do just that. Everyone knows that you were never supposed to live on your Social Security check and that you need to supplement it with savings and other investments. So if some people listened to them and did what they suggested, then they are now probably living comfortably in retirement with savings and their Social Security check.
If that mother who was burning her Social Security card is still alive, she must be in her 70s or 80s. And she has probably been getting a Social Security check for 10 or 20 years. I wonder if she burns those checks, too.
Many people have come up to me following a speech, or sent emails to my column, predicting the downfall of Social Security. I have always told them the same thing. Sure, Social Security faces some challenges. But it has faced many other challenges before. And Congress always eventually does the right.
It happened in the early 1980s, not too long after the economists gave their ill-considered advice. Back then, Congress raised the retirement age and added a very small increase in the Social Security payroll tax. And that has kept the system chugging along. And in the not-too-distant future, it will happen again.
The other clipping from the “Tom’s writings” box that caught my eye was a piece I wrote for a magazine in the mid-1970s about an elderly woman I will call Nancy who lived in a remote cabin in the mountains of central Idaho. I was working in the Boise, Idaho, office at the time, and had asked to meet Nancy after reading a story she wrote about Social Security in a Boise newspaper. I ventured out to her place that sat on a small rise overlooking a stream called Grimes Creek to interview her. The article I wrote was titled, “Wisdom of the Grimes Creek Sage.”
I learned that the Social Security article was an excerpt from a journal she had kept since moving to Grimes Creek . The chapter on Social Security should be required reading for skeptics and critics who question the need for a Social Security system. Here is an entry in which she recorded her thoughts just before her first Social Security check arrived.
“April is the month my Social Security payments begin. Such a lovely little brown paper envelope, meaning, indeed, security. I remember other days. In the raw new land of South Idaho it was shove and scrape, and if you had bad luck or lost your strength, you were done for. I was raised in mortal fear of disability or some natural disaster. We walked a thin tightrope with no net. Two years of crop failures could wipe out ten years of savings. That of course, was part of the reason for large families — more hands to work the land. Children were sometimes your only security against dying in a ditch. There was no cushion. But Social Security became my cushion.”
I mentioned to Nancy a discussion I had a week or so before with some folks who told me that it should be the responsibility of families, not the government, to care for the elderly. She pointed out that even when a family cared for its elders and kept them safe, they still lacked their independence. She referred me to another entry in her journal.
“For as much as your people care for you, and you for them, absolute financial dependence is a terrible, crippling thing. Social Security helped change that.”
Gosh, how I wished those economists who encouraged young people to drop out of the Social Security system had talked to Nancy. Maybe they wouldn’t have been so flippant with their advice. I recall that Nancy had a plaque hanging on her living room wall. It read: “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.” I’d add to that something like this: “The wisdom of an old woman will overcome the education and skills of young economists.”