Social Security has kept millions of Americans out of poverty


We must ensure it continues to do so

AntiPovertySoldierThere is an early episode of the 1970s sitcom Good Times titled “The Dinner Party” where the Evans family suspects that an elderly neighbor of theirs has resorted to eating pet food. It turns out that she was indeed doing so as her Social Security checks were not enough for her to make ends meet.

Although this episode aired more than 40 years ago, there are still a multitude of real-life examples today where senior citizens are relegated to making such a decision. In many cases, it is not even a matter of eating pet food, but whether or not one eats at all. Too many of our seniors have to delicately balance whether or not they get proper nutrition versus buying life-saving medications or paying to keep the heat on.

In a recent editorial in The Nation titled “Why Seniors — Not CEOs — Deserve a Raise,” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren observes that historically, Social Security has proven to be one of the most effective anti-poverty tools at our disposal, keeping “21 million Americans out of poverty in the last year alone.” Nonetheless, Social Security is often not enough for many, and as the years continue to pass without appropriate adjustments it may become less and less effective.

While historians suggest that the concept of Social Security dates back at least two millennia as is associated with the practice of tithing, the first practical applications of the concept by a government body apparently didn’t occur until the 19th century. In the United States, the Social Security Act became law in 1935, and the first monthly benefits were paid in 1940.

In 1948, the UN General Assembly incorporated the notion of Social Security into its Universal Declaration of Human Rights by stating that “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his [sic] dignity and the free development of his personality.”

Notwithstanding the global embrace of this concept as a human right, Social Security, just as it was in 1935, remains a controversial subject in America today. Since at least 1997, there have been numerous proposals to reform the nation’s Social Security system, often resulting in intense partisan debates.

Prior to these more recent deliberations, there have been upwards of two dozen modifications made to the Social Security Act over the past three-quarters of a century. Such adjustments included the mandate of an automatic cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 1975, the same year that the aforementioned Good Times episode was originally broadcast. Yet only two years later in 1977, the mandated COLA adjustments were scaled back to what were deemed “sustainable levels.”

This is significant because, as Senator Warren notes in her editorial, 2016 will be only the third time in the last 40 years that those receiving Social Security and other related assistance (such as disability and veterans’ benefits) will not see an annual increase in their COLA in spite of a nearly $3 trillion surplus in the Social Security coffers.

She contrasts this to the average four percent increase that CEOs at the biggest American corporations have received in the last year and continues by demonstrating that a comparable four percent increase to Social Security recipients “could cover almost three months of groceries for seniors or a year’s worth of out-of-pocket costs on critical prescription drugs for the average Medicare beneficiary.”

Not adequately providing for many of our most vulnerable citizens puts us on a dangerous path. A separate column from author Michelle Chen, in the same issue of The Nation, suggests that current trends and the failure to support our seniors could ultimately result in a world where no one can afford to retire.

This would seem especially true for seniors in the Twin Cities, where the median income for households headed by someone 65 and over has remained flat or dropped slightly for at least a decade-and-a-half according to Wilder’s Minnesota Compass. During that same period, the median income for senior-headed households of color has dropped by more than 22 percent to less than $22,000 per year.

Seniors need better. We must give them their due.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.