08/13/2010 11:22 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Worried About Retirement? Time to Strengthen Social Security

It's time to get real about the future.

Working people are facing the most profound economic crisis of our lifetimes. All over this country, women and men who have worked hard their whole lives are facing long-term unemployment, foreclosures and the dramatic scaling back of their dreams for their kids. Families who have struggled and saved to own a home and build for the future now wrestle with how to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. And after decades of hard work, too many American workers are retiring into poverty.

With 26 million Americans unemployed or underemployed right now, retirement seems like a strange topic to discuss.

It must've seemed equally strange during the depths of the Great Depression. Our leaders, however, understood that financial security is the underpinning of recovery. Instead of shrinking from the challenge, our nation seized the opportunity to rebuild our economy and create a reliable retirement benefit that all workers could count on.

On this, the 75th anniversary of Social Security, in the midst of another great economic crisis, it's time to recommit ourselves to the fundamental values we share as Americans: that if you work hard you should be able to earn a paycheck that supports a family. And that after a lifetime of hard work, you deserve to retire with dignity.

Forget what you've been told. Social Security is not in crisis today. It remains the bedrock of our retirement security system. In fact, it's the only universal part of our retirement system that isn't in crisis.

And thank goodness, because for most Americans, the rest of the retirement system is in the red zone.

Half of working Americans today have no retirement benefits through their work. None.

And why? Because over the last 30 years, we've been subject to a deliberate effort by corporate CEOs and anti-worker politicians to slash pensions, reduce 401(k) contributions and place the entire burden of saving for retirement on the backs of workers.

The race to the bottom on wages and benefits has made it impossible to save for our retirements. Families are using credit cards to buy groceries and fearing layoff notices. And when you add that to the global financial meltdown, which wiped out 401(k)s and working families' hard earned savings, you have a catastrophe that will take years to correct.

The only retirement source we know we can count on in this country is Social Security. Savings evaporated and home values plummeted when the economy collapsed, yet Social Security kept sending out checks, the same way it has for three quarters of a century. It's the most reliable, sustainable retirement program we have.

There is no question it's an essential program. What we need to ask is if Social Security benefits are adequate.

For many hard-working Americans, Social Security alone is not nearly enough to retire on. The average Social Security benefit is just $14,000 a year -- less than a minimum wage income for a full-time worker.

Nearly half of all janitors, home care workers, child care providers and other service sector workers risk of retiring into poverty if they're relying solely on Social Security. Nearly two-thirds of women retirees receive below-poverty level benefits. Half of African Americans and Hispanics retire into poverty.

This should be a wake-up call for politicians in Washington. It's simply unacceptable that our earned Social Security benefits leave retirees in poverty for the rest of their lives. That's no way to reward a lifetime of hard work.

Instead, we hear the same old arguments: we can't afford Social Security, we need to cut benefits, we need to raise the retirement age.

Wrong. The politicians and corporate interests pushing these arguments are the same people who destroyed our pensions. The same people who want to hand the fate of our retirements over to Wall Street.

The truth is that Social Security doesn't add a dime to the deficit. And it's a program Americans want to protect. According to a new poll released this week, nearly 70 percent of Americans oppose any cuts to Social Security.

The retirement future for our families looks pretty grim. But it's not etched in stone.

We can celebrate this anniversary of Social Security by declaring that no American should live their retirement in poverty. We can focus on creating adequate Social Security benefits while funding Social Security for generations to come. We can continue rebuild our economy at the same time we work to strengthen Social Security to meet the challenges of a 21st century workforce.

We can give our children and grandchildren a reason to celebrate in another 75 years.

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