Social Security: The Real Story

By Sherman, Gordon | National Forum, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Social Security: The Real Story

Sherman, Gordon, National Forum

Will it still be there? Will it be a good deal?

Franklin D. Roosevelt commented on the startling changes that the country had experienced going from an agrarian to an industrial society. In August 1935 when he signed the Social Security Act, he noted the insecurity these changes had brought to Americans. "Young people," he said, "have come to wonder what would be their lot when they come to old age." President Roosevelt might have been surprised to know that the American public is still asking that question in 1998. "Is Social Security still a good deal?" and "Will it be there for me?" These questions echo the concerns of millions of Americans approaching retirement age or simply planning for their golden years.

The answer to both questions is a resounding "yes" despite the naysayers who predict doom for the system. Social Security is arguably the country's most successful domestic program. It has been a good deal for millions of Americans and will continue to be. The factors that make Social Security such a good deal and so important to the country stand the test of time. These factors should be considered as Americans debate Social Security's future.


The original intent of the Social Security law was to partially replace income lost because of retirement. The law was framed, as FDR said, to give "some measure of protection to the average citizen against poverty-stricken old age."

Today 92 percent of Americans aged sixty-five and over are receiving Social Security, and another 3 percent will be eligible when they retire. Social Security keeps a full fifteen million people above the poverty line and millions more from near poverty. It is the major source of income for 63 percent of Social Security's beneficiaries, comprising about 90 percent of total income for a quarter of that age group. If it did not exist, the poverty rate among older Americans would exceed 50 percent. Social Security has accomplished its mission of giving senior Americans security and a measure of financial independence.

Social Security Is More Than Retirement Benefits.

The Social Security program protects you if you become disabled or if a family member dies or becomes disabled. The original Social Security law was amended in 1939 to make certain survivors eligible for checks and again in 1956 to provide for payment of disability benefits.

While we all like to believe that we will be healthy and well when we reach retirement age, the fact is that 42 percent of men and 28 percent of women will die or become disabled before they reach retirement. Social Security insures the American worker and his or her dependents against these hazards. In fact, for the young worker, Social Security coverage is the equivalent of a $200,000 disability policy and a $322,000 life-insurance policy.

Recognizing this coverage is important in the debate about the future of Social Security. Frequently detractors of the system ignore the insurance features of Social Security and characterize the program exclusively as a retirement pension plan. The fact is, however, that a full 20 percent of Social Security beneficiaries are under the retirement age of sixty-two.

Ask a Florida mother of two about the importance of Social Security's disability and survivor coverage in her life. Diagnosed at the age of thirty-six with terminal cancer, this parent was unable to continue her work as an attorney. Social Security gave her the ability to plan for her children's financial future and care even beyond the time she knew she would be with them. This Florida mother knows well that Social Security is more than retirement.

Social Security Is a Strong and Durable Program.

After sixty years of paying monthly checks, the Social Security program is still solvent and strong. Workers retiring today at age sixty-five with average earnings will draw out what they paid into the system with interest in eight years. …

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