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by Caroline Dobuzinskis

In political debates and media reports, the dialog on Social Security has recently focused on budget numbers. The program is often mistakenly tied to the deficit despite the fact that by law it cannot borrow money to pay for benefits and thus cannot contribute to the deficit. But the bigger story is being missed: the fact that Social Security directly affects the lives of many Americans including seniors, the disabled, and widows and children who are eligible for survivor benefits.

The program has a long history, and across its nearly eight decades it has expanded to include more people under its protective umbrella.  Fundamentally, once a person becomes eligible as a permanently disabled worker, retiree, or spouse or widow of a retiree, benefits last as long as one lives and are adjusted for inflation each year. While the benefits of Social Security are especially important to women because of their lower lifetime earnings and longer lives, men are becoming increasingly reliant due to shifts in retirement saving patterns and the recent severe recession. Many children, whose parents have died or become disabled, rely on Social Security insurance benefits, as do disabled children, including the adult disabled children, of working parents or grandparents who worked.

Many organizations have begun to tell this important part of the Social Security story.

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) recently began collecting input about how people had been affected by Social Security on its Facebook page—you too can tell your story here. By completing the sentence “Because of Social Security, I can…” respondents have offered insight into their specific needs that the program is currently meeting. “Because of Social Security, I am able to get the medical attention that I need, eat, buy toiletries, pay my electric bill as I am disabled,” said one commenter.

One perhaps somewhat harsh reality is that Social Security benefits, which are very modest (the typical woman 65 or older receives $10,915 annually),  give enough support to lift many Americans out of poverty—more than 14 million Americans aged 65 and older would be poor without Social Security benefits. Another commenter on NWLC’s Facebook page said that she would be homeless without access to Social Security insurance benefits.

The program also offers support to those with disabilities or supporting disabled individuals. “I am able to take care of my autistic grandson who would be in foster care or a group home without me,” said one commenter on NWLC’s Facebook page.

The Older Women’s League (OWL) collected similar narratives for a video that shows the range of women who receive benefits from Social Security.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the program in 2010, the Frances Perkins Center started the Social Security Stories Project:  “an opportunity to join thousands of Americans in showing that you are part of how Social Security has transformed our country, our economy and our people – young and old.”

The center is named for Frances Perkins who observed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 and went on to become Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Perkins helped establish the Social Security program, which FDR called “a cornerstone of his administration.”

Visitors to the website can submit their stories directly to the site.  See them all on their webpage and watch the video.

We hope that by continuing to spread these stories, the focus can shift to the dire impact that cuts to the program would have on many Americans and their families.  Besides, we are a wealthy country that can well afford to take care of our elderly and disabled and their families.

Other related videos:

Don’t Make Us Work 'Til We Die

A new video from Social Security Works looks at the alternate reality of older workers who would be  unable to retire, and would have to keep on waiting tables, drilling construction sites, and working other strenuous jobs if the Social Security retirement age were raised further.

Scrap the Cap

Produced this year by OWL National, an animated video starring fictional versions of Whoopi Goldberg and Glenn Beck debating the importance of the Social Security program.

Social Security: Real Stories

Produced by the Social Security Administration’s Open Government Initiative, a video collection of testimonials from Americans about how Social Security has been a source of support.

President Obama’s Weekly Address: Honoring Social Security, Not Privatizing It

In his address on August 13, 2010, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Social Security  President Obama told Americans that he would “honor” Social Security—not privatize it.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

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