My father died when I was nineteen, overnight leaving our first-generation immigrant family with no income. He died a week after taking a new job, so there was no insurance set up. The mortgage was due, utility bills were due, and we needed to buy groceries. My mother was prostrate with grief. An older cousin took me and my kid brother downtown to sign up for Social Security benefits. That couple thousand dollars of income made all the difference.
Now Young Republicans in chapters across the country are chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Social Security has got to go." Their older and more sophisticated counterparts carefully explain that well, it's not that, it's just that we want to privatize it, make personal accounts that could compensate for lower benefit levels. I want to tell them, I already have a private account. I had it when I was nineteen. I have it now. It's guaranteed. You want to turn part of it from a reliable pension into an iffy investment scheme that, depending on when I need it, may or may not pay out what I expect. That's a bad idea.
My grandmother worked cooking and cleaning hotels all her life. It was the only kind of work a new immigrant from Poland who didn't speak much English could get, and she was grateful for it. My grandfather worked in a factory. They were able to buy a house, raise four kids, and become citizens.
When they retired, they lived off their garden, a little savings, and Social Security. I imagine my grandmother being asked to choose a diversified investment strategy for her new privatized account. "Pani (that's "Mrs." in Polish) Kasica, do you want aggressive growth, or bond funds? Have you considered I-shares?" All over this country, there are old ladies, new immigrants, newly disabled people, and little orphaned kids who are due a bit of Social Security, for whom choosing investment strategies makes about as much sense as flying to the moon. Social Security should be a comfortable, simple bulwark against the most extreme poverty and disaster. It should not be a complicated, worrisome obligation requiring frequent informed decisions that may be beyond the sophistication level of the very people it is designed to protect and benefit.
After my mother suffered a stroke, she spent the remaining 21 years of her life in a nursing home. After the proceeds from the sale of her house were gone (and at $3,000 a month room and board, this took less than 2 years), she was supported by Social Security, Medicaid and later Medicare. Her Social Security check of several hundred dollars a month was guaranteed. It did not fluctuate. It even went up every once in a while, adjusted for inflation. We had to pay a percentage of it to the nursing home every month. But with the remainder, I could take her to a CVS and she could buy everything she needed. And once in a while we went out to dinner.
This March 13 will be a year since she died. As I face my own uncertain future, I think about all the grandmothers, the wage-earners with dependents, the teenagers who lose a parent, and the sick kids in America. I think about all the people in the less well-off 80 percent in our country who need Social Security. The Wall Street traders don't need it, the rich don't need it, and the politicians with government pensions don't need it. But thatıs who would profit from turning Social Security into a roulette game.
And I want to say, Mr. President, by all means shore up the Social Security Trust Fund. Raise the cap on the payroll tax to bring in more money from those who can afford it best. But don't destroy its reliability. Donıt sink our country further into debt to privatize it. Donıt reduce the benefits or raise the retirement age. Please donıt shred this safety net that has been a foundation of our country for seventy years.
Christina Kasica is a Communications and Policy Specialist at United for a Fair Economy.