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Back to the Future?

Under Social Security, domestics, maintenance workers and others in low-paying jobs can in retirement live in some dignity and not, as in the past, depend on charity.

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I remember Oct. 29, 1929, when the stock market went to hell. I remember the day that the banks closed, one of them taking my father's savings. And I remember Roosevelt's voice as he sought to reassure Americans they would survive, and together we would save our capitalist system.

Frederick Lewis Allen, a social historian and editor, wrote in 1931: "The grocer, the window-cleaner, and the seamstress had lost their capital. In every town there were families which had suddenly dropped from showy affluence into debt. Investors who had dreamed of retiring to live on their fortunes now found themselves back once more at the very beginning of the long road to riches. Day by day newspapers printed the grim reports of suicides."

In 1933, editor and writer Edmund Wilson wrote in The New Republic: "There is not a garbage truck which is not diligently haunted by the hungry. Last summer the hot weather when the smell was sickening and the flies were thick, there were a hundred people a day coming to one of the dumps."

Roosevelt, in response to these sorrows, listed three essential needs that Americans should be able to count on: decent homes … productive work … and "some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours." To achieve these, Roosevelt battled a large segment of the conservative business interests who, to this day, seem to want to return to what they considered "free enterprise."

Roosevelt said: "I still believe in ideals. I am not for a return to that definition of Liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I am sure you prefer that broader definition of Liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America."

The battle between the president — that "traitor to his class" — and his opponents was as bitter as anything we see today. Even many years later, I had a friend whose low blood pressure caused him to see double — except when he heard Franklin Roosevelt's voice, when his pressure shot up so high he could see perfectly.

On Aug. 14, 1935, at Roosevelt's behest, the Social Security Act became a law. From this time, the government has administered a program in which workers have paid a tax on their wages or salaries and in return received a monthly payment after they retired. Widows and orphans of dead breadwinners have received a payment to keep them from extreme poverty.

Under Social Security, domestics, maintenance workers and others in low-paying jobs can in retirement live in some dignity and not, as in the past, depend on charity.

The government has been the custodian of the tax payments and guaranteed the annuities. The taxes were put into a trust fund which now, in fact, consists largely of United States bonds. And even though before long the number of workers contributing to the fund will fall below the number of people receiving Social Security payments, the trust will be able to pay current benefits until 2042, according to the Social Security Board of Trustees. Still, now is the time to start a fix: perhaps raising workers' contributions and gradually adjusting benefits or other solutions to keep the program solvent. But the program is not yet in a crisis.

It is hard, considering history, to avoid thinking that the "crisis" we are hearing about is just another shot in the battle in the conservatives' war against the government programs that, as Roosevelt said, protect our citizens against "the hazards and vicissitudes of life."

I am glad that my livelihood does not depend on an investment package that was figured on the state of the market when the Internet bubble burst in March 2000.

I am glad that I am part of all the people who while they were working contributed to a system that guarantees a retirement income to each of us. As Nichele Landis Dauber, associate professor of law and sociology at Stanford University, has written:

"Obviously, the 'hazards and vicissitudes of life' that Social Security guards against are just as threatening today as they were in 1934. The transition from a manufacturing to a service-oriented economy, globalization, the outsourcing of middle-class jobs, the rising cost of higher education and housing that is depleting the ability of the middle class to save for retirement, fears of being a burden to children, lingering illness, and extended widowhood — all of these things strike the same chords of panic today that they did in 1934. The market is still a potential disaster for those without time to wait out its fluctuations." S



Rozanne Epps is copy chief of Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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