The cause was small vessel disease of the brain, said her husband, Samuel V. Spagnolo.
A specialist in health-care management, Ms. Hardy first worked for Reagan in the early 1970s when he was California governor and she served as assistant secretary of the state’s health department. She said she came to admire his limited-government conservatism and philosophy of helping but not coddling society’s vulnerable populations.
She volunteered on his losing presidential campaign in 1976 as well as his winning bid in 1980, then joined the new administration as an assistant secretary of health and human services. One of the highest-profile women in official Washington, she displayed a brusquely efficient style that surprised some legislators and union leaders who had “expected someone polite and demure,” she told the Christian Science Monitor.
“The business of government,” she declared, “should be businesslike.”
In 1986, Reagan tapped her to lead the Social Security Administration, a massive organization with 76,000 people in more than 1,000 offices that processed around $200 billion a year in benefits to 37 million people. (Her predecessor, career civil servant Martha A. McSteen, had been presiding over the agency for nearly three years as acting commissioner.)
Soon after Ms. Hardy was appointed, she publicly warned that too many people were counting on the entitlement program as their sole means of support in old age, even though it had not been designed for that purpose.
“If I have one responsibility, it’s to remind [retirement-bound baby boomers] that the one with the primary responsibility to the individual’s future is that individual,” she told the Monitor. “Somewhere along the line we came up with the idea that Social Security is the entire retirement ticket. It’s not — the ticket is a combination of social security, savings and pension.”
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She added that postwar baby boomers, herself among them, were more likely than previous Social Security recipients to have the inclination and vitality to continue working well into their senior years. “Why not take another career at 67?” she asked.
During her three years at the helm, Ms. Hardy tussled with employee unions over job cutbacks, computer automation and a much-criticized draft proposal, ultimately scrapped, that would have curtailed the rights of elderly and disabled people to collect certain benefits.
Her relationships on Capitol Hill deteriorated with each scuffle. She reportedly hoped to stay on in her post or advance to lead the Health and Human Services Department but was replaced in 1989 after George H.W. Bush became president. Two years later, she published a book — co-written with her father, a retired public relations executive — about what she called a “crisis” in the Social Security system.
In the volume “Social Insecurity,” they warned that the entitlement program would falter as baby boomers began to collect more from the system than younger generations could replace. “The Social Security system is a ticking time bomb,” they wrote, advocating either tax hikes or benefit cuts to cover the gap. “In the next century, the United States will face a potentially devastating crisis: the retirement checks that should be sent to benefit millions of Americans will not be there.”
They drew attention to “a shell game” in which the government, during times of financial crisis, borrowed from the surplus in trust funds that make up Social Security.
“When the Treasury is in deficit,” they wrote, “the Treasury siphons the money off to pay for current government operations, and in exchange, it gives Social Security an IOU. When the IOU comes due, there will be no money in the Treasury to pay it off, so one way or another, at that point Congress will have to raise revenue.”
They argued for increasing the Social Security retirement age to 70 (it was then 65 and gradually set to increase to 67) and prohibiting recipients from collecting benefits at a younger age, even at a reduced level. The current retirement age is set at 67 for full benefits and 62 for reduced benefits.
According to the latest annual report by the Social Security Board of Trustees, released in April, the combined asset reserves of the trust funds that make up Social Security “are projected to become depleted in 2035, one year later than projected last year, with 80 percent of benefits payable at that time.”
Dorcas Ruth Hardy was born in Newark on July 18, 1946. Both parents worked in public relations. She graduated in 1964 from the private Miss Beard’s School of Orange, N.J. (now the Morristown-Beard School), and received a bachelor’s degree in 1968 from Connecticut College, then an all-women’s school.
Her father, onetime New Jersey assemblyman C. Colburn Hardy, described her as a natural-born manager but not a diplomatic glad-hander. “In college, Dorcas ran for office twice and lost both times,” he told the Monitor. “Then she became a campaign manager, and never lost. And she managed her dormitory, a 28-hour-per-day-job, and did it very well.”
She received a master of business administration degree at Pepperdine University in 1976 and also completed a Harvard University executive program in health policy and financial management. From 1974 to 1981, she was associate director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Services Research.
After leaving Social Security, she ran a consulting firm and joined a conservative advocacy group that proposed diverting Social Security taxes into private accounts. She was a past board member of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., among other institutions.
In 1996, she married Spagnolo. In addition to her husband, survivors include three stepsons, Samuel J. Spagnolo of San Francisco, Brad V. Spagnolo of Edgewater, Md., and Greg W. Spagnolo of Bethesda, Md.; and four grandchildren.
Ms. Hardy told the Monitor that her time at the Social Security Administration, however fraught, had fulfilled family prophesies.
“I remember,” she said, “what my grandmother, who lived close to the headquarters for Prudential Insurance, told me. ‘Now, Dorcas, you should go around to Prudential — you can start out at the bottom and work your way up to the very top.’ Well, Nana would be happy to see me now that I’m head of another kind of insurance.”