March 05, 2005

Social Security Survivor Benefits

Social Security is painted as an older person's issue, and more often than not, it is. But it isn't as frequently discussed that Social Security functions as a life insurance plan for people who leave families behind. I don't know a lot of the details about it, I just know that it saved my family.

I may have mentioned that my family is very religious. In fact, my parents were so religious that they answered their church's call to 'go where the need was greater' as missionaries. For reasons which I can't make any sense of in retrospect, the need happened to be greater in a remote part of northern California. The only evening entertainment was watching the grocery store close or maybe catching the one movie that finally made it to the town's tiny theatre months late.

The place was far enough north that we'd get months of snow in the winter, and it wasn't unheard of for the pipes from the well to freeze over. Our house depended on a woodstove for most of its heat, and maintaining the woodpile was a year round task. It's the place that tells me global warming is real, because now it's a shocker if they get as much as a week's worth of snow.

It was there that my dad first got sick. Really sick. Both his kidneys started failing, and it was a long drive to the nearest real hospital. We had a dialysis machine brought to the house and my mom learned how to operate it. Dad would sit in the study hooked up to the washing-machine sized pump a couple times a day as it spent hours cleaning his blood. He held out for two years.

I was only five when he died. That night, in what would be the last time he opened his eyes, he looked at me and smiled. But I don't remember all that much else about him. There are vague memories of a really tall man (he was 6'10") working around the house or at the local sawmill, some hugs, some discipline, some pictures, and years worth of hospital-issue betadine and neosporin packets to use whenever we got hurt as children.

What he left was a wife who hadn't had any kind of career or career training for 15 years, two toddlers, and a teenage daughter. The wood still needed to be chopped and there wasn't a lot of work. There were people from the church who helped with some of the chores and would come check on us, and my older sister started taking on menial labor. She worked in the strawberry fields in the summer, and took a job waiting tables at the local golf course. (Why was there a golf course in a town that small? No idea.)

It would have been easy for us to slip into oblivion, but my mom was able to keep us fed and clothed because my dad had paid Social Security taxes. Mom was eligible to receive survivor benefits for all three of us until we turned 18.

My mom moved back to civilization, and we stayed with relatives until she remarried. Over the years, those benefits supplemented my stepfather's income and helped my parents build up enough capital to get into the housing market. It covered the lean patches when dad's janitorial business wasn't doing so hot. It helped the family budget cover healthcare, which is a tough proposition when your head of household is self-employed.

Both my dads worked hard at blue collar jobs, and my mom was every bit the traditional stay-at-home mother. In other words, like so many other families, we probably wouldn't have landed safely in the middle of the middle class without a hand. Social Security was that hand.

I grew up in exactly the kind of family that Republicans say they'd like to see everyone have because of an 'entitlement' program that they've vowed to destroy.

My birth father would never have been able to afford private life insurance that could have provided us with as much financial security for so long, but we were taken care of anyway. There's no private retirement account I've heard about that would have provided the widow and dependents of a 33 year old millworker with an inflation adjusted monthly stipend guaranteed until the youngest child turned 18.

It's not a happy subject, but parents don't always survive their children. Not everyone can afford insurance, and few families have the sort of nest egg that would survive the death or total disability of the sole breadwinner. And in the event of such a tragedy, the Social Security system can step in to take a little of the pressure and worry away.

This is the promise made to American families by our government. This is what it means to have a safety net for unpredictable disasters that can mean the difference between poverty and self-sufficiency.

And as a last side reminder, this is one of those myriad benefits that gay families aren't likely to be able to partake of, though if the program is saved we can work to fix that. Every family in America should have this peace of mind, and we should be planning how to make sure that every family gets a chance to recover from its setbacks.

Posted by natasha at March 5, 2005 03:55 AM | US Politics | TrackBack(2) | Technorati links |

What a touching story. Thanks for sharing it. It helps add perspective and reality to the debate.

Chris Edwards
oregon sunrise

Posted by: Chris Edwards at March 5, 2005 10:58 AM

Great post, Natasha.

This is precisely why Social Security must remain as it is. I come from a large family that never had much except love and respect. Dad worked in the woods and part time slinging beers at the local tavern to keep Mom and the eight of us in a warm house and clean clothes.

I have a sister who is developmentally disabled who receives SS checks. She will never be on her own, but has money for medicine and Christmas cards. (She loves to send everyone handmade cards) There will come a time when Mom and Dad won't be there for her. The rest of us have made it clear that she will still live at home and be taken care of. But she will need the money she receives from Social Security to live. None of us make enough money to support her but will give her whatever she needs.

Bush's plan to hamstring SS is vile and cruel. This crap about how supporting the generation that pulled our asses out of the fire of WWII, 'hurts young people' chaps my ass.

I could care less how it's hurting the poor young yuppie scum. This is not entitlement in my book, Social Security is a promise made by the government to the citizens of this country that after a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, they would provide a financial safety net. These seniors, like my parents, paid into the system from their first paycheck to their last. It was money out of their pockets at a time when the house was needing repairs and school clothes were needed back when these ungrateful backstabbers were in grade school. But they paid. Now, they deserve everything the benefits promised.

To Hades with Saunders, Rove and Bush. I wish that I could wave my hand and put them on the cold streets of Spokane with no job, no home, no money and no hope. How long would they make it?

Social Security isn't a plaything that gets taken out every ten years to mess with. It's a program that stands tall supporting our society and, with a few finanacially respsonsible upgrades, will be there for your family, mine, and even these yuppie bastards when (and if) they get old.

Oh, by the way... to my sister - Happy 39th Birthday, Kerry!

Posted by: David Aquarius at March 5, 2005 11:06 AM