Friday, August 10, 2007

Social Security: The Good That It Can Do

Dear Readers,

I said I wanted to post some thoughts about Social Security. And I do, but this is not that post. Instead, I have a guest blogger in. I had a guest in before, I think for Lent (Thank you Anne GG.)

This piece falls in the realm of a defense, I think, an "apologia" for Social Security. And it is a good one, because it is an insider view from someone who is now an outsider, so it is both passionate and balanced. It is also written by one of my true friends, at whose word I would go, vote, die, read, or change. (Or at least try to do the above.)

Big government is thought of too often, like Yeti, huge and monstrous. Perhaps it has some of the Bigfoot characteristics, but I believe it is more like a Wookiee, a powerful force with the ability to do great good.


PS At one point in the essay listen for my voice saying, "Aw, shucks."

Social Security

Where to begin…where to begin.

I guess I’ll start with a personal story.

Due to a number of unfortunate circumstances occurring when I was young and compounded by a certain level of neglect from a number of adults in my life, I suffered with a chronic depression since approximately age 10. I stayed in school, did not get involved with drugs or drink excessive amounts of alcohol, got good grades, went to college (with a lot of coaxing from a well-meaning friend, my dearest brd, who has been a tremendous blessing in my life), and grad school. When I turned 18 I began therapy and remained in therapy for the next 19 years. Despite the therapy, my depression worsened and I ended up in hospital at 25. I returned to work two days after I was discharged, but remained depressed and found myself in and out of the hospital several times over the next few years. After each hospitalization, I returned to work immediately, usually within two days. However, I eventually lost my job and, having been on my own for many years, could not pay my bills and student loans. My credit was ruined. I got another job, but lost that too after another hospitalization. (This was prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

I remember being numb from depression and numb from the disbelief that this was what my life had become. You see, I was supposed to be a success. I was smart and got good grades. I had had no personality issues with co-workers, did not cause trouble, did my work. Until the hospitalizations, I was not an absent employee. I was usually one of those "assets" employers sometimes talk about.

I lost my apartment. I almost lost my car, but I had only a few payments left to make, and my father and a cousin helped with that. With the help of a hospital social worker, I applied for Social Security Disability. Due to the fact that I had been working since I was 16 and had had several well-paying jobs, I was able to collect a disability payment near the monthly limit. Believe me, this was no lottery win and it didn't cover all or even most of my expenses. It did keep heart and home together—loosely.

So I needed help. Who helped? Well, you now know the government helped. My church deacon group had a fund and they were able to give me some money on two occasions—approximately $2,000 each time. I did not attend a very large church, and that is what they could do. I suspect the deacons actually added to the fund so that they could give what they did. It was impossible for the church to pay me a monthly amount to help me keep things together. I imagine this is the case for many churches. In the event that any church was able to provide a monthly check, they most likely would not be able to do that for several people at once. Remember, I was a single person. I did not have a family to support.

During this time, my medical bills were covered under medical assistance. For awhile my prescriptions were too, but that changed and I was required to pay for my prescriptions (approximately $400-500/mo.) and pay back to the drug store the money medical assistance garnered from them after deciding they were not going to pay for the scripts after all. This amounted to about $4,000.

After I finished my Masters degree, I was able to begin adjunct teaching at a college and eventually got a job. However, the job required that I build up a caseload and this was also dependent on the employer's decisions as to who should get which case. So it took awhile. I did not make enough money to pay all my bills and continued to get the disability checks. When I had enough work to support myself I discontinued the disability checks, but the Social Security rules stated that once I made $500, I was no longer eligible for Social Security. I knew this while I was making more than $500, but less than a living wage and I also knew I would have to pay the money back to the government. I received a Social Security Disability check for approximately three years. At the end of it all, I owed them $11,000 and over the course of several years, I paid them back. A small inheritance allowed me to contribute to the deacon fund and pay off my defaulted debts.

Why am I going through all this, revealing what I consider to be personal shortcomings and embarrassments not to mention the probability of being stigmatized by nameless, faceless others whose prejudices I cannot defend against? Because the discussion we are all having is very ideational and conceptual. In reality, things are not so simple. (Note: This discussion was under the title True Democracy and Economic Wealth and continued under True Democracy and Economic Wealth Continued.

For instance, as I already stated, my church (and I suspect many churches) could not really provide enough money for one person let alone a family to live on for any length of time. My guess is that many churches could not really help too many people at once. I believe many churches already feel they are stretched beyond their means when it comes to helping people, especially those needing cash; and this at a time when the government does provide some services although they are severely restricted and limited!

What about the people, many of them Christians, who were in my life and aware of what was happening with me? They did what they could. They visited me. I lived with a few people for awhile. They did not offer to pay my bills or give me money. And as far as I can recall, no one asked if I had food or was hungry (I was not eligible for much at food cupboards because I was single). I knew no one at that time, who felt they had any extra cash to lend me. One person did provide some cash from time to time.

My father, who had little money, would play the daily numbers from time to time and save up his $10, $50, $60 maybe occasionally $100 winnings to send them to me. Where was the rest of my family? With the exception of one cousin who really had not known me very well and eventually took me in, they were MIA.

I know for a fact that some people, including family members, did not do more because they were either afraid they would end up supporting me or taking care of me indefinitely or felt I was not "sick" or had no reason to be on disability.

So, I used a government entitlement and the welfare system. Believe me, this was a most humbling and miserable experience. I was often regarded with suspicion; subtle insinuations that I should "work like everyone else" were common. Then there is "the look" reserved for those receiving government benefits that surely makes clear that you are little more than ungrateful, lazy scum living off of the hard work of others.

But I am grateful. I am grateful that I was able to take advantage of the government programs. I am grateful for the kindnesses (and no doubt sacrifices!) of those who helped. But in situations like mine and many, many others unlike mine and as dire if not more so, what is needed exceeds what any individual, group or church can do, especially when we move beyond the individual experience.

I paid into Social Security for 10 years prior to collecting disability, collected for three years and have been paying into the system since (about 10 years). I will continue to pay into that system as well as pay all my other taxes at whatever rate based on an above-the-median-income. I will do it gladly. I will do it because I believe social safety networks (government included) offer the possibility that someone like me can get it together, get back on their feet, and become a contributing member of society once again. I will do it regardless of the graft and dishonesty in the system and despite the reality that some people will game the system. I will do it because to those who have much, much will be required. I will do it because it is not for me to decide who deserves help based on race, creed or behavior. I will do it because I was there. I will do it because there but for the grace of God, go I…(again).

1 comment:

Dan Trabue said...

Thanks for sharing the story.

I suspect that much of the welfare system, Medicare and Medicaid could make the case that they save money in the long-term. Sure, people might collect for a short time, but then - like you - they're back on their feet and paying back into the system.

And, sure, there are doubtless some who abuse the system.

My question would be, as a citizen - what is more cost effective? If it's costing us $1x million to pay for a program, BUT it saves us $2x million down the road (by keeping citizens productive, out of jail, educated, etc), then there's no real choice.

I try to point out to those who claim to be conservative that it's not like we have two choices: Do we spend $1x million on a program or do we give that money back to the taxpayers?

Usually, for most "welfare" and assistance type programs, taxpayers WILL be paying, one way or another. And if the more compassionate model also happens to be the more fiscally responsible model, what is the only fiscally conservative thing to do but fund the most efficient approach?