Lopez riles up her grandmother often on Social Security. “I’ve told her that my generation is actually paying for the retirees — tens of millions of them. With the tanking U.S. economy and growing unemployment rate, who will pay for us when we get old?” she asked.
“Grandma thinks Social Security is always going to be a part of the American dream,” Lopez stated.
In fact, Lopez, 26, reflects the pessimism of two-thirds of her age group, according to an AARP survey released earlier this year. The poll of Americans18-29 found that only 33% are confident that Social Security has a future. But nine in 10 of these young adults said they believe Social Security is an important program.
The perception gap about the long-term solvency of Social Security is especially important now because President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is due to issue its report by December 1.
The commission’s recommendations to Congress may include proposals to raise Social Security’s full retirement age to 69 or 70, or impose other cuts in the program’s benefits – cuts that would most affect people now in middle age or younger.
Lopez’s generation has heard for most of their lives variations on “Social Security won’t be there for you when you grow old,” a line promoted by conservative interests for over 20 years.
Yet, it’s her grandma who is on the upside of the truth—and the trend.
A Healthy Program
Not only is Social Security healthy enough to pay full benefits for the next 30 years, without any changes the program would cover 78 percent of promised benefits for 45 years after that, according to the latest report from the Social Security Trustees. A wide range of experts says the program needs only minor adjustments to cover all of its obligations completely and even strengthen its protections.
The Social Security Trustees report shows that more than 52 million Americans receive the program’s monthly benefits, and one in four is actually below age 65. For African American and Latino families, almost half of those receiving Social Security assistance are not seniors.
For example, wounded soldiers and their spouses and children, as well as the families of the soldiers who died while serving the country, get Social Security benefits. Among others receiving support from the program have been families of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
That Social Security helps to stabilize families in times of hardship will emerge as “a new frontier of organizing,” said Raj Jayadev, executive director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a program of New America Media (NAM) working with low-income youth in Central California.
Jayadev emphasized at a recent workshop of groups for youth and elders that the media and policy makers tend to isolate people in generational boxes that keep advocates for youth and elders from reaching out to one another.
Political budget cutters, he said, have been playing each group’s interests off against the other “in ways that could catch us flat-footed, if we haven’t intentionally thought about and developed our own understanding and initiatives to reflect the reality that we know.”
Jayadev recounted how only last year elders and youth in San Jose rallied together to stop the city from closing many community centers, which offered both youth programs and senior nutrition programs.
Communities reflect family ties between young and old, Jayadev said: “I cannot go into a seniors’ facility today and not see young people taking care of old people. I can’t go into a housing project or low-income community where young people grow up and not see older people talking care of younger people.”
Key to many families has been Social Security’s disability and survivor’s benefits paid when someone cannot work due to sustained illness or injury, or a wage earner dies.
At a “Hands Off Social Security” rally at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., in October, Andrea Gorman described how when she was only four years old, Social Security’s survivor’s benefits enabled her and her seven brothers and sister to remain together after their father died in the 1960s.
Now a retired member of the International Association of Machinists Union, Gorman, 56, said Social Security was there for her again when she became too disabled to work in recent years. Although most people think of it as a retirement program, she added, “We have to let young people know it will be there for them.”
$2.5 Trillion Cushion
Social Security’s balance sheet is, in fact, well into the black with a reserve fund of $2.5 trillion and rising, according to the 2010 report from the Social Security Trustees.
This surplus, which will rise to $4.3 trillion in 2024 before being tapped, is a cushion to protect younger and smaller generations from having to absorb the full retirement costs of the huge boomer generation. The 78 million boomers will start turning 65 this coming January.
Jeannette Takamura, dean of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, said that the impression of conflict between generation has widened because of the way Social Security has been framed in national debates.
“We have to restructure and reconstruct this message,” said Takamura, who headed the U.S. Administration on Aging in the second Clinton Administration
In the youth sector, the generational communication gap can be challenging to address because of discrepancies in, and competition for, funding, said Keith Hefner, founder and executive director of Youth Communications, based in New York.
Programs for youth, Hefner said, have been especially hard hit in the recession by budget cuts compared to national programs for older people. In New York City, for instance, the City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to a $99.1 million reduction in the 2011 budget for the Department of Youth and Community Development to $289 million.
Social Security and Medicare are federal entitlement programs with essential benefits guaranteed to those who qualify for them. People meeting the programs’ requirements cannot be denied benefits.
Other program for seniors, though, have received severe cuts in California and elsewhere, including meals, home care, senior centers and similar programs, especially for those with lower incomes, under the Older American Act or state budgets
Lateefah Simon, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in Oakland, Calif., noted that most concerns of young and old are interwoven, ranging from Social Security to foster care policies that would strengthen support for grandparents raising their grandchildren.
Simon who won a MacArthur grant for her work with teenaged and young adult women, called for greater collaboration-building across the age spectrum. For instance, she said, the mentorship of elders is critical to the future of youth. “If we lose our traditions, our linguistic powers and our faith, we actually lose our communities,” she said.
Better communication is essential. In recent years, the Social Security Administration has sent an annual report to most Americans showing the benefits they can expect to receive based on their earnings.
But dull-looking mailings do little to answer Catherine Lopez, who commented, “Even when I look at Social Security brochures that my grandmother gets in the mail, every picture that I see is of an older person,” she said. "I'm working and I'm contributing to Social Security fund."
Changing the public image of Social Security, Takamura added, could reach out better to younger population, and correct the misinformation so many of them receive.
“We need to show that Social Security is about you, and you and all of us,” stated Takamura.
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