Social Security is 50 years old this year -- venerated like a sacred icon. Alf Landon, in 1936, was the latest serious presidential candidate to call it "a fraud and a hoax." Yet, in official circles, welfare components of the Social Security program -- like Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- are as despised as a thistle. Even the old-age and medical insurance aspects of Social Security, while praised in principle, are continually attacked at the edges. With seasonal regularity, the budget freezers seek to cap the COLAs -- cost of living adjustments -- and increase the amounts old people have to contribute toward the costs of their own medical care.
Myths and misconceptions about poverty and Social Security are the software for this programmed opposition. There is the myth that the conditions that make people poor are temporary, short-term aberrations in our systems. In fact, while life today is better for most people than when I was growing up in a small Oklahoma town, a side effect of our becoming an advanced industrial society is that we are always going to have people who are unable to work because they are disabled, blind, too old or too young and others who, from time to time, cannot find work -- and whom families or private charity cannot take care of. It is a permanent cost of doing business in our society.
There is the myth that poor people are mostly deadbeats who deserve their lot. This comes from thinking of recipients as statistics. We should think of the actual people involved -- the elderly woman in Truchas, N.M., who tries to live on her Social Security check of $323 a month, for example, or the young Albuquerque mother of two whose husband has just left them and who needs financial assistance -- and day care -- while she tries to get the education and training necessary for a job.
There is the related myth that poor people will not work. In other countries, it is assumed that people do want to work, unless they are physically or psychologically impaired. In the United States, despite all evidence to the contrary, there seems to be an underlying assumption that the work ethic does not extend to poor people. But example after example can be given: Remember the thousands of "welfare mothers" who once overwhelmed a meager U.S. program, which sought to require them to work, with an avalanche of voluntary applications, only to be sadly disappointed when it turned out that there were in reality few jobs available for them.
There is the myth that the elimination of welfare cheating and fraud would save billions. The fact is that large-scale anti-cheating programs will not pay their way, much less buy a bucket of Pentagon pliers or a gross of their toilet seats. Welfare recipients are at least as honest as high-bracket income-tax filers, increased auditing of which group would probably prove to be much more cost-effective.
There is the myth that if we would just give poor people enough advice, they would quit it. Give them advice if it makes you feel better, but money is what they need. For those who can work, of course, a job is their preferred way to get it. There is the myth that, if advice does not avail, making it hard on poor people will help them see the error of their ways and get them up and going. That is like trying to put a punitive tax on snuff: Dipping snuff is already punishment enough. So is being poor.
There is a misconception that the concept of charity is the principal basis for welfare and Social Security: The more fortunate of us should help to take care of the less fortunate, out of the goodness of our hearts. The fact is that programs are in our own self-interest -- and that is the way they should be justified. It is a fact that a society in which people have enough to live on is a more stable society and one in which more people feel allegiance to the system.
Right now, we know that most states seem unable to build enough prisons fast enough to hold the torrent of lawbreakers. What we should realize is that this is not unrelated to the recent rise in the number and percentage of Americans who live in poverty. Democracy itself cannot flourish in an environment without amelioration of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. People without a chance do not make good democrats. Welfare and Social Security -- and the redistribution they entail -- perform a fundamentally stabilizing function in the nation's economy, as well. To paraphrase Pogo, "We have met the beneficiary, and he is us!"
Finally, there is the misconception that Social Security and Medicare should pay their own way -- through earmarked and seemingly constantly increasing payroll taxes. This, in effect, pits workers against old people. The resulting conflict grows worse as the percentage of our old people increases. In 1935, there was a strong but unsuccessful effort to convince Franklin Roosevelt to propose that Social Security be funded out of general revenue (as all other industrial countries do it). Indeed, that was one of the things Alf Landon later advocated in his poorly reported "fraud and hoax" speech.
To grasp the consequences of continued insistence on full payroll-tax funding of Social Security and Medicare, suppose for a moment that the lawmakers of the '30s had decided instead to fund National Security, not Social Security, through an earmarked payroll tax. Today's officials would have to react periodically to alarms about the eminent "bankruptcy" of defense. They would feel constrained to vote to increase payroll taxes each time they approved a new weapons systems. At budget-cutting time, they would call for a freeze on defense-budget COLAs. They would regularly require generals and admirals to contribute an even larger share of the costs of their own medical care. And defense contractors, rather than welfare and Social Security recipients, would come to know what it is to be treated like statistics.