For the moment, all is quiet in the nation's capital. The president and his men are off the trail of those elusive and dangerous creatures: the Social Security rip-off artists.
As you may recall, this season the administration warned us all that there are some hardened criminals out there threatening the very solvency of the Social Security system by their sheer anti-social greed.
They drew a portrait of people who grasp for their minimum Social Security payments of $122 a month -- 17 cents every hour, waking or sleeping -- even though most of them didn't "earn" it or don't "truly need" it.
Well, I am not a person to harbor a fugitive from justice, even an elderly fugitive. But during the quiet season, let me offer a somewhat more realistic picture of these 2 million "Most Unwanted."
The budget, as it now reads, cuts from the very bottom of society. It cuts out the 2 million people who have received this 17 cents an hour as a right rather than a handout.
About 16,000 of them are over 95 years old.
About 500,000 of them are over 80.
Two-thirds of them are over 70.
A full 85 percent of them are women.
Of the women, the great majority are widowed homemakers. The others worked for the lowest wages in society or for no wages at all. They include, for example, cleaning ladies who barely scraped together the 12 qualifying quarters, and even nuns who were let into the system under a clause making room for citizens who took a vow of poverty.
What they have in common is that, by strict numerical calculations on the Social Security formula, they would get less than $122 a month. If they or their husbands were paid, say, $100 or less a week before retirement in 1955, they would have "earned" less than $80 a month.
They were people trapped by a 1950s or 1960s wage scale and trying to survive with an inflationary price scale. But during the '70s, Congress set a floor on payments, establishing a minimum payment. The payment was frozen at $122 a month in 1977. If the minimum is cut, they will lose an average of 40 percent of their income.
But what about the famous double-dippers? you ask -- those with two federal pensions, two hands in the government pocket.
Double-dipping was not a piece of flim-flam. It was accepted policy. Nevertheless, only 12 percent of those who get their 17 cents an hour have any other pension at all, federal or private.
The president has not said that all the elderly who receive this payment are running a con game. Some of them are the "truly needy" and the "deserving needy" who would qualify for welfare.
It is ironic to hear the Reagan administration encouraging people onto the welfare rolls. But they know something we all should know: few of the people getting minumum benefits would qualify for welfare.
To get SSI, you can have no more than $1,500 to your name. Oh, you can keep the roof over your hear and a car (if you can prove you need it for medical purposes), but that's it. If you have some money in the bank, or even a burial plot worth more than $1,500, forget it.
What is scary in all this -- even in Reagan's promise to keep payments somehow to the "truly deserving" -- is that they are establishing a new principle: a means test for Social Security.
Social Security has never been a welfare program. It's been a right, not a charity.
A means test could be applied right across the board. After all, there are people with healthy private incomes and company pensions who are receiving full Social ysecurity benefits. Most people put together just this sort of package in planning for their retirement. Under the Reagan notion, they are all vulnerable.
ythis is why the House voted right before recess to restore the minimum payment. No one knows yet what the Senate will do when it reconvenes in September.
In the meantime, Reagan may insist that, "There is no reason to be frightened." But a lot of these hard-bitten "criminals" are getting tremors.