My dad came home sick from work on my third birthday. Two weeks later, he died at home. Heart attack. He was 47 years old.
I am the youngest of seven, and at age 45, Flo (my mom), was left to support us. She found a job at a local bakery, got to work on her G.E.D., and relied on Social Security survivors benefits to make ends meet.
Back then, Social Security benefits were available for surviving children until age 21, as long as they went to college. Without Social Security I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to college at all. Years later, when I lost my sight, my college experience and education came in handy when I had to learn to use a talking computer to launch my career as a writer. These days I credit Social Security for helping me support myself as an adult.
An organization called Generations United is sponsoring an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. this Monday about the growing interdependence of generations in America. Juan Williams will moderate a panel at the event, and I’ve been asked to say a few words about Social Security survivor benefits. Most people think of seniors when they think of Social Security, but over the years survivor benefits have also helped Millions of young widows, widowers, and children. Like Flo. And Me.
I was fortunate to have received Social Security benefits when they were still available to college students. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1981, and the student benefit was discontinued by Congress in 1983. Now Social Security survivor benefits end when a child turns 18 (exception: if a child is 18 and still in high school, the survivor benefit lasts until s/he graduates, or until two
months after reaching age 19, whichever comes first). A Generations United Fact Sheet says a college education is more necessary in today’s economy than it was back in 1981, when I graduated: college graduates earn, on average, 61 percent more over their lifetimes than high school graduates do. And as the value of a college education grows, so does its cost (roughly double since 1979). The fact sheet says the Social Security actuary estimated it would cost .07 percent of taxable payroll to restore the benefit (measured over the traditional 75-year Social Security window). There was no estimate of how much these additional College graduates (making higher wages and paying higher payroll taxes) would offset the cost of restoring the student benefit, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to figure this out. I pay into Social Security now, and Flo paid into it for more than 20 years. After she passed her G.E.D., she worked as an office clerk until she was 70 years old.
Survivor benefits helped Flo and our family make it through hard times, and student benefits helped me become the independent person I am now. Restoring the student benefit could help today’s vulnerable young people, too. That’s what I’m going to say to the policy-makers at the National Press Club on Monday. I just hope they’re out there listening.