Why Do We Need Social Security?

. . . A family that does not love and care for its children is dysfunctional. A country that does not care for its citizens in times of need is also dysfunctional . . .

In the hullaballoo over Social Security, there has been a great deal of argument over whether we actually have a crisis. In that debate, a few people have brought up the issue of why we have a crisis, or even a problem. Still fewer have brought up the reasons for having Social Security in the first place. I think that question must be answered first, or we will never find effective, long-term answers to the first two.

The universal understanding is that Social Security exists to guarantee a minimum income to our retired citizens. That’s true, but the effect of Social Security is far more complex.

great depression beggarSocial Security in the US was born from the misery of the Great Depression, an almost decade-long period that saw a huge percentage of the population thrown out of work. (Our recent “Great Recession” was minor by comparison.) At the end of the Roaring Twenties, a decade of phenomenal growth and seemingly endless prosperity, the stock markets here and abroad crashed, taking the entire world economy with them. (Which is a good reason, by the way, for not investing a single penny of the Social Security fund in private funds of any kind.) On top of that, bad farming practices and bad weather decimated the soil of the mid-west, ruining hundreds of small family farms. Both the city mice and the country mice were made destitute.

The Great Depression spawned dozens of images that have become cliches: ruined investors throwing themselves from skyscraper windows; hobos encamped by the train yards; rumpled lines of the unemployed and homeless waiting at the doors of the soup kitchens; three generations of family crammed into a battered farm truck with all their belongings, fleeing the Dust Bowl for the golden dreams of California.

In such an upheaval, the elderly often suffer the most. Younger people can sweep the streets or migrate to seasonal work or take a government created job to work on public projects. At the very least, they can better survive cold, hunger, and privation. Images of wrinkled, emaciated “senior citizens” (they weren’t called that then) were among the cliches, and they hit us hard. For one thing, we all have parents; for another, we will all grow old. Faced with those images, and that inevitability, it must have seemed obvious that some sort of government retirement plan was the right thing to do.

Just One Part of the Equation

But don’t forget that poverty in old age is just one part of the equation. Sometimes the economy fluctuates. Sometimes the weather goes bad. Sometimes your luck runs out completely and you’re left jobless for a long time. There are a lot of homeless people in the US these days – hundreds of thousands by some estimates – and most of them are not winos, druggies, or slackers.

In fact, many if not most would love to have a job, if they could find one. They’re either under-trained, inexperienced, viewed as too old (not legal but common), or otherwise unemployable. Or truly unlucky: got laid off, then the hurricane hit, then the kid got pneumonia, then Mom got Alzheimers and had to be put into an institution, then . . .

How many piled-up crises could you survive? Particularly if you’ve never been able to save because you’ve always worked as a waitress or a shipping clerk or at some other job where the Minimum Wage is also the maximum wage?

And once you’re homeless, it just gets worse: everyone assumes you’re a vagabond at best, most likely lazy, probably stupid too, or with a drug problem . . . Who’s going to hire you if you don’t have an address and phone number, eh?

In the midst of the Great Depression, when it seemed that everyone was out of work, it was easier to believe that it could happen to anyone. On top of Social Security, the legislators of the day instituted minimum wages, unemployment compensation, mandatory overtime, public works projects like the CCC, and other federal and state programs designed to guarantee that everyone could make a living wage while young and be cared for when old.

It was socialism, pure and simple, but it seemed pretty darn necessary.

The Unforeseen Effect: An Emotional Benefit

There is an unforeseen effect to such social programs, an emotional benefit that goes much deeper and broader than the individual good of putting a little money into the hands of someone who really does need it. Social Security and other “welfare” programs affect how citizens see themselves in relation to their government and their society as a whole: suddenly the government cares.

It seems a truism that all Americans distrust The Government, whether it’s Washington, City Hall, or the Town Council. After all, these are the people who hire the Cops. Ever notice how they’re Cops when they give us a ticket but Officers when they arrest a thief? Government is always a mixed blessing. We hate being regulated, and we really hate having to pay taxes, but we do appreciate having our roads plowed and our children educated and our neighbor’s snarling, snapping dog put on a leash.

So it is with Social Security and the like: We hate to pay for them and really hate the thought that somebody is Cheating the System and Getting a Free Ride, but we’re relieved that we can collect unemployment when we get laid off (I know this from experience), and we sure won’t turn down those Social Security payments when the time comes. We offer grudging thanks then, even though many of us have a strong go-it-on-your-own, I-don’t-need-charity, particularly-not-from-the-government ethic.

Consider Other Countries

Other societies are not as grudging in their acceptance of the role of social programs, both for the temporary and the long-term poor. Consider Sweden, which has a sweeping system of social programs. It also has one of the highest average per capita incomes and standards of living in the world. It has one of the highest taxation rates, too, but it also has virtually no homelessness. Everyone has health care, paid for by the government.

And it has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

There’s a significant link here, I believe. Canada also has strong social programs and it also has a tiny crime rate. As Michael Moore pointed out in his film Bowling for Columbine, Canadians are not particularly afraid of being robbed or mugged or murdered, despite having quite a few guns per capita. And they have just as high a percentage of minorities and immigrants (something Moore didn’t really delve into), which I believe counters any claim that Sweden’s low crime rates are due to its homogeneous population.

The US, Canada, and Sweden are all capitalistic, industrial, democratic nations. What the US lacks, but Canada and Sweden have in common – and Germany and France and England and Japan and most of the other countries that rival our affluence – are strong social programs and low crime rates.

(For some detailed statistics of affluence, social programs, crime rates, and other social variables, check out http://www.huppi.com/kangaroo/8Comparison.htm.)

Answering the Third Question

A family that does not love and care for its children is dysfunctional. A country that does not care for its citizens in times of need is also dysfunctional. Kids in a bad family feel worthless, damaged, and angry; they either give up or strike back. Abused children grow up to be abusers. Just so with citizens who are left to shift for themselves in squalor and illness. Some suffer in silence, convinced that they aren’t worth any better. Others strike out. Since no one cares for them, they care for no one. It’s every man for himself, and they’re going to get theirs the only way they see available.

As a society, we have not recognized the deep psychological and cultural benefits of Social Security and other social programs. We equate socialism with Communism and despotism, despite the successes in other countries that are just as capitalistic and democratic as we are (not perfect successes, I will admit, but that’s a subject for entire books and I’ve gone on long enough).

The answer to my original question on the reason for Social Security is not simple but it is clear: Social Security not only takes care of our elderly, it makes us a stronger, safer, more modern nation – everything we claim to be but don’t quite manage to live up to.

Knowing that, we have more incentive to find careful, reasoned, and long-term answers to the other questions – the hows and whys of our problem and how to fix it. Charging in with drastic restructuring, particularly to the point of taking money out of the fund, is too risky a step for something so important to our cultural well-being.