Social Security celebrates a birthday


Sunday, August 15, 2010, was the 75th birthday of the signing of the Social Security Act. Actually the day was a Wednesday, and there is more than ample history available at the Social Security website.

As a veteran recipient of the benefits of Social Security, and as a contributor to the program for many years as an employee, I have an obvious interest in the act.

As a person, I most often think of the Act in the context of my Grandfather Bernard, my Dad’s Dad. In his story is the story of both the history of and the need for a national system of income security.

Grandpa turned 65 on February 26, 1937. This happened to be virtually coincidental with the first actual payouts to Social Security recipients. Since this was a brand new program, he had likely contributed nothing to it. A heckuva deal. But life is a bit more complicated than that.

For many years, Grandpa was chief engineer in the flour mill in Grafton ND. He had a first-grade education, was a self-made and hard-working man, the “bread-winner” of the family, and proud of it. In context of the times, he was middle class. They owned a house, car, and were thrifty, saving money in the local bank. In 1925, he and Grandma took their only vacation that I know of: they spent a month back in the Quebec of his birth.

Life was going along well, that summer of 1925, when he was 53, and Grandma 44. These were the good old days, when heroic men fed their families and didn’t rely on the dole. Women stayed at home and raised the kids, and if you weren’t shiftless you worked for a living: no unemployment insurance or the like.

But then as now, unbeknownst to them, a curve ball was to deliver a strikeout to their best laid plans.

In the month of May, 1927, a couple of weeks before my Dad graduated from high school, two events happened within the same week in Grafton ND: the flour mill closed its doors forever; and the bank which held all of the family savings went under, leaving the family with no livelihood or savings. Dad had planned to go to college that fall, but those plans were delayed. Grandpa was 55, not the expected retirement age.

The Great Depression is usually marked as beginning in 1929. Theirs started two years earlier. Their youngest son, Frank, was still at home, 12 years old.

There is little historical record of how they survived the first half of the 1930s. Grandpa is said to have gotten some income from being a night watchman at the closed mill. He possibly received some income from a small pension resulting from service in the Spanish-American War in 1898-99 – a promise long-delayed by Congressional inertia. They probably got some assistance from relatives in the area, and they took in a couple of farm kids as boarders during some of the winter months. Some of the bank savings finally came back to them at about 10 cents on the dollar.

But when Grandpa qualified for Social Security in ’35, it was undoubtedly a god-send to the family, and it made possible a tiny house which they bought in Grafton, and lived in till they died in 1957 and 1963 respectively.

Today Grandpa’s generation is gone, and Dad’s is rapidly departing. Social Security has been a welcome reality in their lives.

I’m in the lucky generation to have the full benefits of Social Security.

The next generation – my kids – is much more vulnerable, and seems unaware of its vulnerability, and is courted to reject Social Security in favor of rugged individualism once again.

Ironically, the coalition to privatize social security seems to be some of the the youngers and the elders, for opposing reasons.

I hope they both wake up before the youngers experience the consequences of short-sightedness.

Grandpa thought he was secure, too.