RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Promises Worth Keeping

Like you, I started paying into Social Security with my first real job, and I’ve been paying ever since.

All those years, starting when I was about 16, I’d ignore the deduction, or think of it as a savings account that would pay off some time … when I was really old.

I was wrong about the savings account, says Nancy Altman of Social Security Works. I should have been thinking about social security as an insurance policy — a promise to pay a regular monthly amount from retirement onward, whether I live to 70 or 80 or 100.

Not only that, says Altman, but Social Security is doing OK. There’s enough for the government to keep its promise for the next 25 years, through 2037, and with a little tweaking it can go farther. Today, however, that promise — and the “little tweaking” is getting more attention than sending soldiers out to kill poor people, especially with a terrified Congress threatened by a government shutdown.

Notice that it’s not us folks who are terrified. We’re concerned, yes, but we’ve been through this before. But to hear the media freak out, it’s the end of the world for the second time this summer. But I digress. First, let’s look at the promise.

Social Security, when a person retires, pays a monthly stipend based on the amount the person has put into the system. For the lowest income folks, the stipend covers most or all of the lost paycheck. As the amount of lifetime pay goes up from lowest to highest wages, the stipend decreases because those with the highest earnings have other ways to plan for retirement — IRAs and 401Ks and investments of one kind and another.

Some members of Congress say Social Security should be replaced by something like IRAs or 401Ks, so people would invest in the stock market rather than buying a government insurance policy.

That would be great for the stock market but not so great for the retiree.

I’ll take the guarantee, please.

Here in farmland, most jobs don’t have 401K or retirement program options. And, as Tim Gibbons of Missouri Rural Crisis Center pointed out recently, the average age of farmers is increasing and today is between 59 and 62 years old. Estimates vary. But the point is that much of the rural economy depends on Social Security and will be even more dependent in the future. Social Security checks go into the local banks, are paid to the local utilities, support the local tax base — roads, bridges, sheriff, education.

And you don’t have to retire to need help. If someone is disabled, or a family breadwinner is killed — felled by disease, accident, war or natural disaster — Social Security helps out with money for the survivors. It pays the rent, buys food, keeps kids in school, making it the ultimate security for the future of society.

But politicians frightened by the big deficit numbers are a little sketchy on the promise. They just see the big pot of money and think, “it’s ours!” without realizing that most voters agree that Social Security pays off big time.

Here in Missouri, a survey by Lake Research Partners found that three-fourths of Missouri voters felt that Social Security should not be on the table to balance the budget. After all, Missourians reasoned, Social Security didn’t cause the deficit … why should Social Security be raided to fix the problems started by other programs? Well, say the cutters, we can’t shackle the future with massive debt burden and Social Security funds could be used to pay it off now.

By cutting Social Security, however, we shackle the future with kids that can’t finish their educations, or single moms that have to move from place to place to stay ahead of the bill collectors.

In other words, we shackle the future with massive poverty.

Missourians pledging allegiance to both parties agree when it comes to Social Security. Wages higher than $106,800 are exempt from Social Security at this time. Nancy Altman explained that is because taxpayers don’t want to pay the big bucks it would take to keep high earners in a high-dollar retirement. But let’s appeal to the sympathies of those rich folks and suggest that they take a little less themselves.

Oh yeah … I forgot … no sympathies. In fact, the heartless ones propose that people work until age 69, forgetting that youngsters need opportunities that don’t happen if the gray hairs are taking up all the good jobs.

To convince the coldhearted richies to strengthen rather than trash Social Security, we point out that everyone benefits from this program, even a fool that’s OK with living in a nation with a population of elderly, wounded, disabled and young poor people with no bootstraps with which to pull themselves up.

The benefits go to not only the folks that get the checks today, and the landlords and business people that get their money, but the kids growing up with Social Security and becoming tomorrow’s adults.

And that’s a promise worth keeping.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2011

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