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Social Security and You: The Bad Old Days

Tom Margenau on

My wife and I have been doing a little downsizing lately. One thing we decided we can live without is the rather large collection of books we've accumulated over the past 46 years. We are donating most of them to our local library. But as I looked through the old books, I reread one of them, and it struck a chord with me. It's an autobiography by former New York Times columnist Russell Baker called "Growing Up."

In it, Baker tells the story of what it was like to grow up in the 1920s and 1930s. For most of us, the Great Depression is the stuff of history books and hard luck stories revealed in an occasional documentary about the era. But Baker lived one of those stories and writes eloquently about his life and those times.

His book brings the era into focus for people whose vision of history has been blurred by the good life. For me, it also illustrates the reason why we have and need a Social Security system in this country.

Many people have attempted to explain to me that America would be better off without Social Security. They point out that this nation was founded on the principles of personal freedom and that our pioneer spirit encourages people to make it on their own without government interference. As one recent letter writer told me, "If people could make it on their own in the good old days before we had Social Security, they ought to be able to make it on their own now without the government's help!"

The problem with that argument, of course, is that many people were not "making it" before Social Security came into existence. And those "good old days" were very bad for very many people.

In his book, Baker describes the period just after his father's death. His father left a widow and three small children, including Russell, who was then about 10. Russell's youngest sister, Audrey, was 18 months old. His newly widowed mother decided to leave their home in Virginia to move in with relatives in New Jersey. Immediately following the funeral, she had many tough decisions to make. One of them was giving up Audrey!

 

"The giving up of Audrey was done in a time of shock and depression for my mother," Baker writes. "When the undertaker was paid, she was left with a few dollars of insurance money, a worthless Model T, several chairs, a table to eat from, a couple of mail-order beds, a crib, three small children, no way to earn a living, and no prospects for the future."

A few days later, Baker's Uncle Tom and Aunt Goldie arrived to pick up his little sister. "My mother helped them carry out the crib and boxes packed with baby clothes. When the car was loaded, my mother bundled Audrey into blankets, carried her outside, handed her to Aunt Goldie, and kissed her goodbye forever!"

That scene struck a nerve with me because my father also died when I was young. Like Baker's father, he left a widow and small children. Also like Baker's family, my mother was left with a little insurance, a few pieces of furniture and an old car. But unlike the Bakers, we had brighter prospects for the future because my father left behind something else: Social Security survivors insurance.

My mother, brothers, sister and me each received a monthly check from Social Security based on my father's earnings. My siblings and I were able to receive benefits up to the age of 22 if we stayed in school. And my mother received checks until my youngest brother turned 18. (The laws have changed slightly since I was a beneficiary. Today, benefits to children are generally cut off at age 18, and a widowed mother's checks stop when the youngest child turns 16.)

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