Social Security Is NOT A Handout, Folks

by Christine Burke
DNY59 / iStock

A few weeks ago, we settled into family movie night with one of my favorite flicks, Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe. The story, set in New York City at the height of the Depression, details the trials and tribulations of prize fighter James J. Braddock as he struggles to keep his family together during our nation’s worst financial crisis. Through a series of unfortunate events, Braddock finds himself on the edge of financial ruin and has to literally fight his way back to the life he had before the Depression threatened his family’s very survival.

While the movie is definitely Hollywood’s version of the Depression, for me, the movie also represented a tangible way for us to talk to our kids about social injustice and financial hardships. My kids were shocked to see that people lived in shanty towns, called Hoovervilles (named for President Herbert Hoover, whose policies were largely blamed for the Depression), and they couldn’t believe that there was a time when hundreds of thousands of people were without work or food. The images of the wealthy continuing on with their lives while the working poor suffered were almost too much to bear for my 11-year-old daughter. My son quietly watched the scenes where Braddock had to wait in line to find out if he would be hired as a day laborer, and he was deeply moved.

What moves me about this film the most is that it reminds me that, during the Depression, people did whatever they could to survive, to keep their families together. They didn’t have a safety net because our nation didn’t yet have a way to help those who were infirm, elderly, or too sick to work. Social programs like the welfare system, Social Security, and other community-based efforts didn’t yet exist. Those who lived through the Depression suffered in ways that today we cannot fathom, and thanks to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, many of our modern social-assistance programs exist because he had the forethought to begin the process of giving our nation’s weak the assistance they needed to survive.

While many social assistance programs have been in the news of late, Social Security has been a topic debated by both sides of the political aisle for many years now. A growing senior population combined with worries over how to fund the program in the future have led many to believe that Social Security should be a thing of the past. And because I often hear people confusing Social Security with our welfare system, I decided to research the Social Security program to clear up some common misconceptions.

Myth 1: Social Security is a handout.

No. From the moment you receive your first paycheck, you are contributing to the Social Security system. The money you contribute when you are a young worker goes to help support a retiree or person with disabilities currently using Social Security as a means of financial support. By the time it’s your turn, a young worker will do the same for you. No one is demanding something for nothing when they use Social Security. It is a system that we pay into.

Myth 2: Social Security is just for people who are lazy and don’t want to work.

Traditionally, Social Security is largely used by those who are retired (you know, from working, see No. 1), but Social Security’s financial support covers a larger group than you’d think. Social Security exists for those too sick to work (as determined by their doctors, and it is a long, arduous process) and for children under the age of 18 whose parents have died (called “survivor benefits”). Further, dependent spouses of deceased who are taking care of children under the age of 16 are also able to utilize the benefit. So many in our nation do not have the benefit of health and wellness in order to maintain gainful, steady employment, and Social Security exists to help support those who need help having their basic needs met. Nobody is getting rich off SS benefits, and people who are medically unable to work are not “lazy.”

Myth 3: Social Security will be gone by the time I need it, so why should I bother to contribute?

This is a misnomer. The intricacies of this can get convoluted quickly, but suffice it to say that, while yes, our aging population is living longer than they did during the Depression era, it costs less now to provide long-term benefits to those who utilize Social Security. According to The Atlantic, claims that the Social Security benefit will cause an undue burden are unfounded because workers today are more efficient than those during the Depression era (thanks to modern machinery) and that will allow for retirees to be supported by fewer worker benefits. If you don’t have a working knowledge of how the Social Security system works, take the time to learn. It will make you want to keep contributing.

Myth 4: Social Security will bankrupt our government.

Fake news! The fact is, as our population continues to age, health care costs will skyrocket, plain and simple. And what’s more, if health care costs soar to what analysts expect by 2030, programs like Social Security will be the least of our worries. Social Security, in fact, has seen a rise in revenue due to higher worker productivity. We need to shift our focus to finding better ways to fund our health care costs if we have any hope of keeping Social Security a viable option for those who need it most. But health care reform is a topic for another essay. It will not be Social Security that bankrupts the government.

I will gladly contribute to Social Security not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because I know someone will do it for me when I need it to retire or am too sick to work. It’s a cycle. And just like James J. Braddock taught me, everyone needs a little help to get in the game and fight. Hopefully, my contribution will help someone else come out swinging.