Saturday, January 15


My dad had two careers in his life -- first as an Air Force officer and then, after he retired, as a Social Security Administration bureaucrat.

Our nightly dinner table was a lively scene of family news, opinion about current events, gossip about people we knew, and, for fun and inspiration, tales from Daddy's day at work. I have memorized so many stories Daddy told about dealing with people applying for Social Security (NOT all old people; at least as many were widows and orphans seeking survivor benefits and handicapped people submitting claims for assistance). He felt he was doing noble work, and he was.

Daddy had traveled so much during his Air Force, and our formative, years (even being forced to miss his own father's funeral) that he was determined to put down real roots for his family at last and refused any geographical transfer, which was at the time required for promotion. But Daddy's work was so exemplary, acknowledged both by the SSAdministration and the public, that at last they got around the regulations by including his promotion in an almost-invisible rider to an Act of Congress.

It's not a hardship to brag on my beloved father, departed from this world for more than a decade now, one of the funniest, wisest and fairest-minded men I've ever known. But as usual in my personal meanderings there's a (possibly obscured) point.

I'm certain that Daddy, who took such pride in the success of the Social Security "experiment" and in the importance of his own work, would be horrified and defiant about reports that over the objections of many of its own employees, the Social Security Administration is gearing up for a major effort to publicize the financial problems of Social Security and to convince the public that private accounts are needed as part of any solution.

The agency's plans are set forth in internal documents, including a "tactical plan" for communications and marketing of the idea that Social Security faces dire financial problems requiring immediate action.

Our own family, as most American families I imagine, has found Social Security benefits an indispensable part of our effort to remain in middle-income America.

My mother, through her survivor benefits, has been able to remain in the home she and Daddy shared. At 84, she is the chief manager and mainstay of her church's Wal-Mart-sized thrift store, working two full days a week in the store and on call almost constantly. She bores my daughters with her precious but interminable stories of helping prostitutes, her special mission (the girls may be bored but they're proud!). Society is the better for keeping her out of the poorhouse.

Our oldest son, who has mild cerebral palsy, is receiving Medicare health benefits for as long as he is a college student. When he graduates and gets a job those benefits will end (they're tied to his income), but meanwhile they're a godsend since he is too old to be a party to our work-related health plans, and his condition makes it completely unaffordable to secure health coverage. Since his health is excellent he's cost the government almost nothing over the past two years of his eligibility -- but it sure does provide peace of mind.

These are not unusual American stories. But I wonder, is the average voter thinking about the value of our current Social Security system to him/her PERSONALLY?


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