On the 77th anniversary of Social Security, we're celebrating what has made the program so important and why it continues to be vital today. Tim Price writes that through survivors benefits, Social Security creates a widely shared safety net. Read the rest of our coverage here.
A growing number of pundits and policymakers talk about Social Security almost exclusively as a luxury for greedy seniors. But as I learned when my father passed away a week before my high school graduation, Social Security is much more than just a retirement fund (though that is an extremely important function and has rescued millions of seniors from poverty). Through its survivors benefits, it provides some guarantee of security to families of all ages and creates a safety net that many never expect to need.
As my colleague Mark Schmitt has noted, survivors benefits were established four years after the original Social Security Act was passed, but today they are an integral part of the program. As of December 2011, they accounted for 11 percent of total benefits paid, covering 6.3 million people with an average monthly benefit of $1,190. Of the beneficiaries, over 1.9 million are children, with aged spouses and parents of deceased workers accounting for another 4 million. A report from the Children’s Defense Fund notes that the value of survivors benefits for a typical family is equivalent to a $433,000 life insurance policy.
These benefits help families to pick up the pieces when tragedy strikes, allowing them to pay the rent, put food on the table, and afford other necessities despite losing a breadwinner. In this way, Social Security not only prevents financial catastrophe from compounding personal grief, but also gives workers the comfort of knowing that they will still be able to provide for their families after they’re gone. No one knows this better than newly minted vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who saved up the benefits he received after his father’s death to pay his way through college so that he could one day run for Congress and draft a plan to dismantle Social Security.
Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. Instead, I’ll draw from personal experience. As noted above, my father passed away when I was only 17 years old. On the night I was supposed to be working on a second draft of my valedictorian speech, I instead sat with my mother in a waiting room in Richmond University Medical Center, waiting for a doctor to tell us what we both already knew. My father had suffered a massive heart attack at age 45; after years of poor health, it seemed both sudden and inevitable.
But after time of death was called and tears were shed, one of the hardest parts still remained. Delivering the news of a loved one’s death is always difficult, but it was especially painful knowing that one of the people we’d have to tell was my younger brother, Ryan. Ryan was 12 years old at the time, but due to his severe learning disabilities, he thought and behaved like a much younger boy. But to my surprise, even though he was understandably upset, his first instinct was to assure us that we would be okay because we’d stick together as a team.
Of course, it takes more than reassuring words to pay the bills, of which my father had left behind a considerable number. Though he’d retired as a sergeant from the NYPD several years prior to his death, the payment schedule that he chose for his pension meant that most of it disappeared with him. Then there were our expenses. Beyond basic utilities and a pile of credit card debt, my brother’s condition meant he needed special schooling and regular doctor’s appointments, and I was about to head off to a $40,000-a-year university. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to manage by ourselves. Despite the financial hole my father had dug in his latter days, his Social Security benefits allowed us to begin climbing back out.
Though I quickly aged out of my own survivors benefits, Ryan continues to receive them and relies on them heavily to this day. Now that he has turned 19 and left school, he will qualify for the Disabled Adult Child benefit along with 921,000 other men and women, many of whom have been diagnosed with similar intellectual disabilities that prevent them from finding gainful employment. As public health policy researcher Harold Pollack points out, the benefits are “hardly lavish,” but it’s comforting to know that if Ryan’s planned career as an international photographer doesn’t pan out (his goal is to one day photograph the Eiffel Tower), or if my mother and I are unable to provide for him ourselves, he can still fall back on the strongest safety net available.
One way or another, we will, as Ryan predicted, stick together as a team. But that team doesn’t just include the three of us. It encompasses all Americans, bound together by the Social Security system we’ve created, that we all share a responsibility to strengthen and defend, and that we may find ourselves relying on sooner than we think. Social Security isn’t just an “entitlement” designed to give us peace of mind in our old age, if we’re lucky enough to get there. When that luck doesn’t hold out, when the unthinkable comes to pass, it serves as a legacy and a promise to the loved ones we leave behind.
Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter at @txprice.