Seventy years ago today -- Aug. 14, 1935 -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act.
I remember my grandmother, Big Mama, looking forward to when she would get her Social Security check. Having worked all her life in low-wage jobs and sacrificing to raise five of her grandchildren (my four brothers and sisters and me), my grandmother used her monthly Social Security check to supplement a small pension and what she had managed to save. Big Mama counted on that check the way she counted on the sun to rise.
Without a doubt, Social Security has lifted many people -- the elderly and disabled -- out of the depths of poverty. I remember the day my brother, Mitchell, finally qualified for Social Security disability. It meant that Mitchell, who couldn't work because of severe seizures, would have something to live on besides what I could spare from my entry-level salary at my first newspaper job.
At the signing, Roosevelt said: "The civilization of the past 100 years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure. Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last."
Seventy years later, Roosevelt's words still ring true. Who among us has job security? And you need only to look at your own finances or those of your neighbor, co-worker, family member or friend to know that many of us aren't saving nearly enough to live comfortably in retirement. In 1935, as it is now, Social Security was crafted to be a financial safety net -- no questions asked.
"We can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age," Roosevelt said at the signing.
I'm well aware, as I'm sure you are, of the raging and often nasty debates over how to fix the impending shortfall in Social Security. But on the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act into law, I choose to celebrate what it has meant to millions of Americans.
In 2005, says the Social Security Administration, more than 48 million Americans will receive about $518 billion in Social Security benefits. Consider these facts:
* More than nine out of 10 people age 65 and older receive Social Security benefits.
* About two-thirds of post-retirement-age Social Security beneficiaries receive 50 percent or more of their income from Social Security.
* Almost three in 10 of today's 20-year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67. My brother was in his mid-twenties when he became eligible for Social Security disability payments.
* Survivors of deceased workers account for 14 percent of total benefits paid.
Here are some other facts about Social Security from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank:
* Without Social Security benefits, 46.8 percent of Americans age 65 and older would have incomes below the poverty line. About 13 million elderly Americans are lifted out of poverty by these benefits.
* Social Security does more to reduce poverty among children than any other government program. In 2002, 1 million children under age 18 were helped by the program.
* Of the 48 million beneficiaries in July, 6.6 million received survivors' benefits and 8.2 million received disability benefits.
* Social Security has been particularly beneficial for many minority families, especially black and Hispanic beneficiaries. On average, blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes, a higher incidence of disability and more children per family. As a result, both groups have benefited from the program's progressive benefit formula and from its disability and survivor benefits.
There is no question that with fewer workers paying into Social Security compared with the benefits that will have to be paid out in coming years, a fix is in order. But no matter where you stand on the debate about exactly how Social Security should be fixed, it's indisputable that when Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, he forged the way for hundreds of thousands of Americans to live above the poverty line. Maybe you don't think Roosevelt should ever have signed the act. That's your right. But the fact is, Social Security was always meant to be a social program. It has accomplished that mission. I know my grandmother and my brother were grateful for Roosevelt's push to have compassion for the less well off among us.
Curiously, when I checked the official White House Web site three days before the 70th anniversary, there was no mention of it. What a shame this administration, which says it is determined to "reform" Social Security and keep it solvent, didn't see fit to appropriately celebrate the anniversary of the passing into law of one of the most successful government programs in this country's history.
* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org.
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