Social Security Real People Real Benefits

Terrance Heath

"This is not some abstract debate. This is about real people who live real lives." Those were the words of Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, at the Strengthen Social Security press conference on Capitol Hill this afternoon. The press conference is part of Strengthen Social Security’s push for Americans to call Senators and urge them to vote to protect Social Security.

"Real." It’s a word that’s been overuse in our political discourse, by politicians trying to distinguish between "real America" and the rest of us.

But as he moderated the press conference, Henderson introduced speaker after speaker whose stories illustrated his point that the debate over Social Security is about "real people who live real lives," who would face very real consequences if the GOP succeeds in cutting Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age, or privatizing the program altogether. As I listened to their stories, I remembered those of people I’ve known — just as "real" as anyone else’s — whose lives would have been far difference without Social Security, and will be much different if the GOP has its way.

The facts, numbers and statistics about Social Security are readily available, and have been so well explained and analyzed by lots of people that I don’t need repeat all that here. While those facts should be distributed and read far and while, after listening to the speakers at today’s press conference, I think most Americans understand the importance of Social Security because of its impact in their own lives, and those of people they know and love. The numbers bear that out.

I’ve sometimes jokingly said that I’ll never retire, but will probably "work until I fall into my grave." I’m only half kidding, not because I believe the hype about "fixing" Social Security, but because I’m afraid of what might happen to it if people like Rep. Paul Ryan get their hands on it. But for some people it’s not a joke. It’s real.

It’s real for Pat Cotton, a 70-year-old clinical nurse’s assistant from Virginia who talked about how she’s still working full time in order to pay her bills. Even though she started receiving Social Security five years ago, she uses it as a "cushion" while she saves for the retirement she hopes to enjoy soon. Like millions of Americans, who watched their 401ks — their market-invested, retirement nest eggs — disappear when the market tanked in 2008, the 401k experiment has failed, as Dave Johnson noted.

So, how has the 1981 401K experiment worked out? It’s 2009, and no one can afford to retire. Wealth is massively concentrated at the top. So maybe it didn’t work out so well – for us. Pretty well for those at the top, though.

But I’m not advocating a return to corporate-funded pensions for their workers. I think we should tax corporate profits and put money into greatly expanding Social Security so everyone – not just people who work for corporations – can afford to live well when they are old. That would be the solution a democracy would choose.

Cotton also worries about her children, now all in their 50s, who have paid into Social Security and who may not receive the benefits they’re due if the GOP succeeds in cutting benefits, or raising the retirement age.

It’s real, too, for Sam — an employee at The Bagel Grove in Utica, NY; a family business owned by Annie Wadsworth and her husband, started by her husband’s parents. Their business started with a pension plan, but had to convert to a 401k. Wadsworth, who spoke at the conference, related that Sam had jokingly told his wife, "If I die tomorrow, I want to be buried in my Bagel Grove uniform and hat."

Sam might have been joking, but Wadsworth explained that Sam — who works the night shift, standing in front of a 400-degree oven as part of the team that makes about 500 dozen bagels — is nearing retirement age and "doesn’t have a good set of lungs." For workers like Sam, Wasdworth said, cuts in benefits could mean working until he literally "drops into his grave" wearing his Bagel Grove hat and uniform.

Wadsworth invited lawmakers who are eager to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age for workers like Sam to come up to the Bagel Grove and do Sam’s job for a day.

Rajini Raj, a registered nurse from Silver Spring, Md., extended the same invitation to lawmakers to come and do her job for a day. But, they’d better have strong backs, as Raj explained:

Nurses lift 1.8 tons every day, mostly in transferring and repositioning patients. That means many of work with back pain, and 12 % of nurses leave nursing because they are no longer physically able to do the work…I know I won’t be able to lift 300+ pound patients when I am 68 years old.

As Raj spoke, I thought of my niece, who’s also a nurse, and how GOP proposals to cut Social Security would impact her by the time she reached retirement age. If she’s among the 12% who leave the field due to injuries, would disability benefits be available to her?

Raj also spoke of her parents, who worked for almost 40 years, and are on Social Security, the hardship they they would face if they could no longer count on Social Security to help make ends meet, and her own difficulties if she has to help them while saving for her own retirement. As Raj, spoke of her parents, I though of my own mother. Throughout their 50 years of marriage before my father’s death, she was a stay-at-home parent while we were growing up, and after we left home put her energies into running the "food bank" at her church, and other volunteer activities.

Before she married, my mom studied cosmetology and opened her own beauty shop. But At 76 years old, it’s unlikely she’d be able to go back. As a widow, she collects the benefits my dad paid into Social Security. I wondered what would happen to her if those benefits were reduced, and she herself has expressed that fear to me.

Would she lose her independence, and have to rely upon her children to support her? Between the three of us, how well would we be able to afford that?

Story after story from "real people" emphasized Wade Henderson’s point. Even such luminaries as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Tom Harkin, Al Franken and Richard Blumenthal drove home the point with told stories of how Social Security benefited their families. Reid’s grandmother held on to her independence thanks to her "old-age pension check." Harkin’s widowed father, who bought a farm and lost it in the Great Depression, raised three boys to adulthood with the help of Social Security benefits. Social Security benefits helped Al Franken’s mother-in-law, widowed at 29, raise five children to be productive citizens as an adult.

Their stories underscored Henderson’s point about what’s at stake in the current debate over Social Security, but Sen. Bernie Sanders reminded everyone what it was like before Social Security: "Before Social Security, 50% of senior citizens lived in poverty. That was true for the disabled, too. If you were disabled, you were on your own. If you were widowed or orphaned, you were on your own and left to beg. This number is still too high, but only 10% of seniors live in poverty today."

The difference between how and then is a promise made and a promise kept to working people in America, as Reid summed up, "If a person worked hard and contributed to Social Security, America would make sure they could retire with dignity. That promise, made 75 years ago, is called Social Security — the most successful social program in history of the world."

As I said earlier, the numbers and statistics on Social Security are important to know, but if we look at our own lives and those of people we know and love, we can see every day the benefits of that promise, and the importance of keeping it.

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