More and more Americans are saying they don't trust the government to do the right thing, but there is one federal program that has remained consistently popular since it was first signed into law 75 years ago this month: Social Security.
A poll commissioned by the National Academy of Social Insurance finds that two-thirds of Americans support strengthening the program. And it remains popular for the simple reason that it works - keeping millions of retirees, children, and disabled workers out of the grips of poverty.
In the years before Social Security, more than half of the elderly were impoverished. Most Americans worked until they were physically unable to work anymore, having to rely on whatever savings they might have accumulated or on the kindness of family for their survival. The more unfortunate moved to the local poorhouse.
The crisis of the Great Depression, which wiped out millions of dollars in savings and pension funds, pushed the federal government to take action. President Roosevelt wasn't interested in creating another welfare program; he wanted a system of social insurance that would reward a lifetime of hard work and protect Americans against disability and death - unforeseen incidents that, before Social Security, could sentence workers and their families to a lifetime of destitution.
Despite its wide popularity in the years to come, the initial debate over Social Security featured the same kind of overheated vitriol from conservative lawmakers as President Obama's health care plan. One notable rhetorical slam came from Rep. John Taber (R-N.Y.), who said during the 1935 House debate on the legislation that, "never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people."
Taber and other Social Security opponents quickly made their peace with the program as the value of a system of social insurance became clear to both parties. Today, Social Security is the largest single source of income for retirees, making up nearly 40 percent of income for those 65 and older, writes columnist Scott Burns. If seniors stopped receiving their Social Security checks, nearly half would fall into poverty, says the National Academy of Social Insurance.
And as pension expert Nancy Altman points out in her book, The Battle for Social Security, more than 5 million children live in homes where some or all of the family's income comes from Social Security. "Social Security is not just a retirement program; it is, more accurately, a family protection program," she writes.
But 75 years later, the anti-Social Security fringe is back, making its voice heard on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.
A swath of new Tea Party-inspired GOP candidates have gone on record in support of privatizing Social Security, including Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky.
And many GOP leaders in the House are looking to resurrect President Bush's failed pro-privatization plan from 2005, with Minority Leader John Boehner recently telling the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review that he supports raising the retirement age to 70. He also has dodged the question about whether or not the GOP will try to privatize Social Security if it takes over Congress in November.
Wall Street has also been getting in on the action, with former Lehman Brothers chief executive Peter Peterson launching a multi-million dollar campaign to convince voters that without immediate cutbacks to Social Security benefits, our country faces imminent financial collapse.
Social Security opponents like to conflate the national deficit with the long-term health of the program. The reality is Social Security - which is kept in a separate trust fund - has been running a big surplus since Congress made the last "fix" to the program in 1983. If no changes are made, says retirement expert Mark Miller, the surplus will run dry by 2037, which means there would still enough to cover 75 percent of benefits.
There are reforms that Congress can and must make to guarantee the future health and stability of the Social Security trust fund, including raising the cap on covered earnings, controlling health care costs and pursuing policies that help create jobs and reverse the trend toward stagnating wages, which have reduced contributions from younger workers.
But the American people aren't looking for the wholesale dismantling of our country's greatest social program.
Privatization means placing guaranteed income and benefits backed by the authority of federal government onto the stock market, subjecting it to the whims of a roller coaster economy. One can only imagine where many seniors would be today if they had to rely on their 401(k) accounts to pay their bills.
And while those favoring privatization are trying to convince younger workers to give up on Social Security, the declining number of secure pension funds and the increasingly flexible work career of many newer workers, involving many different employers, makes defending Social Security more important than ever for Americans of all ages.
This November we need to make sure our votes go to officials who are committed to ensuring another 75 years of Social Security, not those who want to place our hard-earned earnings at risk in a casino economy.
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