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Protecting and expanding Social Security is extremely popular across the political spectrum. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Activists participate in a rally calling for the expansion of Social Security benefits in front of the White House July 13, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images)

From 9/11 to Covid, Social Security Is There for Us in Times of Crisis

Social Security is a shining example of how we can strengthen our security when we pool our risks and responsibilities.

Nancy J. Altman

The twentieth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack comes at a dangerous time.  COVID-19 is killing an average of 1,500 Americans daily—essentially, a 9/11 attack every other day. What we used to call once-in-a-century disasters confront us nonstop and even simultaneously, killing thousands of us with unfortunate frequency.

Social Security is often described as a retirement program for the aged. The truth is that it provides security throughout our lives.

To confront the pandemic, climate change, and other challenges, unified action is crucial. Yet we are polarized, fighting over even the simple act of wearing a mask. How different from the days after 9/11, when the nation came together as one.

Twenty years ago, we witnessed and gave thanks for the heroic bravery and sacrifices of the police officers and firefighters, public servants who ran toward the danger as everyone else ran the other way. In the days following 9/11, millions of Americans reached into their wallets to contribute to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations assisting the families of the victims. But the most immediate, sustained, and generous support for those families came from our Social Security system.

Social Security was among the first insurers working with families after the attack. Hardworking civil servants processed claims under emergency procedures so that benefits could be paid quickly, based on employer and airline records, without waiting for the usually-required death certificates. The first benefits were paid less than a month later, on October 3, 2001.

Thanks to the Social Security benefits earned by those who died on 9/11, virtually every child who lost a parent that day received Social Security benefits every single month through their late teens. So did the surviving spouses who cared for the victims' children. And those who were severely disabled, their spouses and their children began to receive monthly benefits as well.

Social Security continues to be there for the 9/11 victims. It was there for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and will be there for the victims of Hurricane Ida. It is there for the victims of the pandemic, paying benefits to survivors of those who have perished and to retirees who lost jobs or found that work was no longer safe. If necessary, it will be there for those known as long haulers, unable to any longer support themselves through work.

Social Security is often described as a retirement program for the aged. The truth is that it provides security throughout our lives. Social Security is insurance against the loss of wages in the event of death, disability, or old age. Social Security's life insurance, disability insurance, and retirement annuities are by far the most important—and often only—economic security we have when tragedy strikes in the form of death or disability, or when the fortuitous happens and we live to old age.

As the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us, tragedy can strike any of us at any moment. The Social Security Administration reports that just over one out of four 20-year-olds will become disabled before reaching retirement. One out of eight will die before retirement. As soon as Americans begin working and contributing to Social Security, they start to gain protection for themselves and their families against these risks.

In addition to its life and disability insurance protections, Social Security is unmatched when it comes to providing for a secure retirement. Stock market declines do not undermine its value. One can outlive savings, but not Social Security—even those who are fortunate enough to reach their hundredth birthdays and beyond.

Like the unity we embraced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Social Security is the manifestation of us as a united people. People of all races, genders, religions, and political affiliations contribute to and benefit from Social Security. Immigrants who are not yet citizens, naturalized citizens, and those born here contribute to and benefit from Social Security. Indeed, undocumented workers contribute more than the rest of us because they contribute without collecting the benefits they have earned.

As polarized as we find ourselves, we remain overwhelmingly united in our support for Social Security—and for good reason. It protects all of us. A lot has changed since 2001, but our Social Security system remains strong, a source of stability in times of national, as well as personal, insecurity.

A lot has changed since 2001, but our Social Security system remains strong, a source of stability in times of national, as well as personal, insecurity.

Social Security clearly demonstrates that there are some things government does better than the private sector. Our Social Security system provides life insurance, disability insurance, and retirement annuities much more efficiently, universally, securely, and fairly than its private sector counterparts.

Social Security would not be possible without the hardworking civil servants employed at the Social Security Administration. Some of them were working at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan, within view of the World Trade Center, the towers into which two of the hijacked planes flew. They felt the shock waves and saw the buildings ablaze as they were evacuated. They remind us why we call those who work for government, public servants. They serve us all.

As Donald Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Gov. Greg Abbott and others seek to undermine our confidence in government and its response to the continuing pandemic, let's remember that government is simply all of us banding together for our common good. Those who choose public service are our friends and neighbors.

Social Security is a shining example of how we can strengthen our security when we pool our risks and responsibilities. In the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, all of us, through our Social Security "use the agencies of government to assist in the establishment of means to provide sound and adequate protection against the vicissitudes of modern life—in other words, social insurance."

The attacks of 9/11 heightened our appreciation for public service. Similarly, the recent hurricanes showed the importance of government in warning us of impending danger, responding as the danger engulfs us and assisting us when the danger has passed. These life-threatening events remind us of the words of former Secretary of Defense and Senator William Cohen (R-ME), "Government is the enemy until you need a friend."

As important as Social Security is, imagine how much better it could be if President Joe Biden and his Democratic colleagues in Congress succeed in expanding it. On the anniversary of 9/11, it is fitting to reflect on and give thanks for our Social Security system. In addition to giving thanks, let's commit to doing what we can to expand Social Security, making it even more protective in the future.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Nancy Altman

Nancy J. Altman

Nancy J. Altman is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. Her latest book is "The Truth About Social Security: The Founders' Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies, and Common Misunderstandings" (2018). She is also the author of "The Battle for Social Security" (2005).

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