A Social Security Administration employee's story about 9/11: "The most difficult, and at the same time most gratifying, work I did was to help relatives of 9/11 victims file for Social Security... One woman, in particular, stands out in my mind. Her husband was only in his 40's and she had 2 young boys. She ... came to my office with a picture of her husband, a tall, handsome man, with his arms around her and the children. We sat in the lobby of my building, with tears rolling down our cheeks, oblivious to the other[Social Security] employees walking past us. The human tragedy of that terrible day became so personal that it will always be part of my life. I always feel that the work I do is vital and of great service to the public, but never more so than during those months when we helped the 9/11 relatives"
On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, it is worth reflecting on the strength, compassion and competence that were abundant on that tragic day and the days following -- heroic sacrifices of first responders; the capacity individuals found within themselves to go on when faced with tragic losses, and the quiet way people did their jobs to help the families of the victims.
Besides remembering the losses, it is also good to recall how the nation came together in the weeks and months following 9/11, and how our institutions of government -- which, after all, is all of us working together through our representatives -- performed as they should.
Social Security is one such government institution that especially stands out. Often described as a program for retired workers and aged widow(er)s, the reality is that Social Security provides wage insurance against events, some tragic, that can take place throughout people's lives. Often described as a cold and inefficient bureaucracy, this stereotype, as the above story suggests, does not match the reality of the program or the vast majority of civil servants who carry out the program's important mission.
Virtually every child who lost a parent in the terrorist attacks was entitled to Social Security benefits every single month until his or her late teens -- benefits earned by the hard work and Social Security contributions of that parent who died. Those victims earned monthly benefits for their surviving spouses who care for these children, as well. Americans disabled in the Sept. 11 attacks received Social Security benefits that they too had earned for themselves, their spouses and their children. That's why 2,377 children who lost a parent and 853 surviving spouses received monthly benefits, and why monthly benefits were also paid to 642 people severely disabled as a result of the terrorist attacks and 99 of their children and spouses. And that's why over the first five years alone, $175 million in Social Security benefits were paid to people harmed by the terrorist attacks.
Every payday, from that tragic day until today, deductions from our wages are paid, without fanfare or press releases, into the Old Age and Survivors Trust Fund, out of which those 9/11 families receive payments. Indeed, Social Security has a history of quietly going about the public's business, performing smoothly and with low administrative costs. Indeed, Social Security was among the first insurers working with families after the attacks, taking claims under emergency procedures so that benefits could be paid quickly, based on employer and airline records, without requiring death certificates. The first checks were received less than a month later, on Oct. 3. (Social Security was similarly quietly efficient and invaluable after Hurricane Katrina, but that will await another time.)
While most of us think of Social Security only as a retirement program, in fact Social Security's protections are by far the most important life and disability safeguard available to virtually all the nation's 75 million children under age 18. Through Social Security, a thirty year old worker earning $30,000 with two young children and a spouse caring for them, has, through Social Security, life insurance and disability insurance, both policies with present values each in excess of $450,000. Today, about 4.4 million dependent children -- roughly 3.5 million under age 18 and 900,000 adults disabled before age 22 -- receive monthly Social Security checks, totaling over $2.4 billion each month! Another 3.4 million children who do not receive benefits themselves nevertheless live in households with one or more relatives who do. It is the largest source of income for grandparents raising their grandchildren. Indeed, Social Security lifts 1.3 million children out of poverty.
As 9/11 reminds us, tragedy can strike at any moment. The Social Security Administration reports, for example, that 30% of 20-year-olds will become disabled prior to reaching retirement age. As soon as Americans begin working and contributing to Social Security, they are protected.
In addition to its life and disability insurance protection, nothing approaches Social Security in terms of providing secure retirement. Neither stock market fluctuations nor inflation undermine its value. One can outlive savings, but not Social Security -- even those who are fortunate enough to reach their hundredth birthdays! As billions of dollars of pension and home equity "wealth" disappeared over the past few years, no one raised the specter of Social Security failing to meet its current obligations. This is because Social Security is conservatively financed and it works. It is completely affordable, not just now but for future generations as well.
The attacks of Sept. 11 reminded us of the importance of family and heightened our appreciation for public services. They also showed the value of the traditional Social Security system -- reliable and necessary in an insecure world.
Nancy Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security, and Eric Kingson, Professor of Social Work at Syracuse University, co-chair the Strengthen Social Security Campaign (www.strengthensocialsecurity.com). The authors served as staff for the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform (a.k.a. "The Greenspan Commission").