Early in my career, I was asked to report on the consumer problems of older people. Shoddy home improvements and credit abuses — the usual complaints — did not rank at the top. The number one problem was food: Some seniors were living on cookies.
That was before the 1972 Social Security amendments gave them cost-of-living raises, making it easier to buy bread and butter and hamburger now and then. Years later in California, I met Jethro French at a senior center where she had come to buy stale bread. “Ro” would have starved without Social Security. She was probably close to starving anyway, telling me what a struggle it was to pay 60 cents for an occasional onion to spice up a bean salad. Last year in Illinois, I interviewed Jim Dobbs, who was contemplating suicide until his Social Security disability payments arrived in the nick of time.
Voices like these from the kitchen table have been missing in the debate over Social Security. Words from those who need it to make up for lost income in old age or from a disability are nowhere to be heard among the dire predictions about the federal budget deficit and Social Security’s contribution to it. Never mind that the president and his budget chief agree that Social Security has not contributed to the budget deficit.
There are many reasons these voices are MIA, ranging from conventional wisdom molded by Washington elites and the media’s eagerness to follow that opinion, to the failure of supporters themselves to speak in plain English. Yale professor emeritus Ted Marmor says there’s another: “Social insurance programs in the U.S. are widely popular in a superficial way. You have popularity without understanding.” In other words, Americans know at a gut level that they’re good; they just don’t know much about them.
A 55-year-old Manhattan hairdresser was amazed when I explained she had earned a right to a Social Security benefit, having worked for 30 years. Twenty-nine-year-old Nick Quealy-Gainer, a social worker in Champaign, Ill., was about to become a father but he had never heard of Social Security’s survivor benefits. Young people have a huge stake in its future, but their voices, too, are absent. One day they will be like Ro French or Jim Dobbs or their own parents. One-third of all beneficiaries now rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income. That’s not much in dollars and cents. The median income for older women receiving Social Security is about $15,000; for men about $26,000.
Young people will need Social Security even more than their parents. At a recent gathering of Social Security advocates in New York, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D, pointed out that the average 30-year-old man makes $3,000 less (inflation adjusted) than his father made in 1973. Good pensions for today’s young workers are relics of the past, and 401(k) plans are a poor substitute.
Social Security needs a different narrative — one that tells the story of its importance. Without it, there’s a danger older people again will live on cookies.
Trudy Lieberman is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review and a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health. She blogs about health care and retirement at cjr.org and at preparedpatientforum.org.