Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Our Social Insecurity Complex: Catholics Are Called to Account for the Common Good, Not Just Personal Retirement

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Our Social Insecurity Complex: Catholics Are Called to Account for the Common Good, Not Just Personal Retirement

Article excerpt

THE BEDRAGGLED MEN IN A SHUFFLING BREADLINE are frozen forever in bronze at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. Their somber presence captures a moment when the American narrative of manifest economic destiny was staggered into silence by the Great Depression. With millions unemployed and hungry, Roosevelt responded with work and relief programs that brought the nation back from the edge of disaster.

But Roosevelt's New Deal did more than put people back to work. It gave them hope and a sense that despite their many differences, all Americans shared equally in an epic struggle against poverty and despair, that out of economic ruin, they were working together toward a better nation. Arguably the most successful program to emerge from the New Deal era, one that literally bound Americans together, was Social Security.

That program evolved to ensure that no one would have to face a future of deprivation and struggle because of market upheavals or personal misfortune. Its intentions reflected a respect for human dignity that is essential for any truly civilized society and a wise deference to the capriciousness of fate that protected everyone, the lucky and the unlucky, together.

In a 1934 defense of Social Security, Roosevelt described how "in earlier times" individual security was assured by the "interdependence" of families and small communities, relationships that were shattered by industrialization and modernity. It was up to the nation as a whole to step in to assume that lost communal responsibility.

"This seeking for a greater measure of welfare and happiness does not indicate a change in values," he argued. "It is rather a return to values lost in the course of our economic development and expansion."

Social Security's grounding principles are worth recalling now as a different president seeks to redefine the program and dismiss those values Roosevelt hoped to restore. Promoting a limited privatization of the system, Social Security "reformists," with no apparent sense of irony, have devised a free-market fix for a system constructed in response to history's greatest free-market failure. Portraying a system approaching collapse, ignoring a $1 trillion surplus large enough to last at least until 2042, they blithely dismiss simpler solutions that would shore up Social Security indefinitely. …

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