Some of my favorite movies from the 1930s and 40s feature hardworking families struggling to make ends meet. In the films, there are recurring scenes where characters, such as Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, are shown sending money home to take care of their widowed mothers. Maybe these themes are so prevalent because they speak to the intergenerational economic stresses of Depression-era America.
Fast-forward to the 1980s. I was running around after toddlers, and my family was barely getting by on my husband’s teaching salary. We lived around the corner from his grandparents who were then retired. They lived on a small pension and their Social Security checks. While they hadn’t paid much into the system, they were hardworking immigrants who had raised five kids. He had been a firefighter, and she had worked the overnight shift at the dining hall here at Notre Dame, baking donuts and bread for the next day’s meals.
In the mid-90s, my husband’s aunt suffered a heart attack, and she never regained her strength to return to work. While she couldn’t afford to keep her home, her Social Security disability check paid for a small apartment. I used to pick up groceries for her and help her write out her checks—in between working and running kids to school and practice. Given the cartloads of groceries I was buying for my own growing family, I was always glad to see the first of the month come along when she would have the money to pay me back.
During these past few years, when my husband and I have been working long hours to help our kids through college, it’s a comfort to know that his parents each receive monthly Social Security checks. He was a plastics engineer, and she fielded calls at the local newspaper. In retirement, they’ve suffered persistent health problems. And their savings would never have been enough without this support.
The debate across the nation as here on campus with President Bush's visit in March has turned to Social Security. An aging population, increased economic pressure, foreign competition—all portend change to the system. Our cover story looks at the economics of growing old in America.
What may be lost in the Social Security debate as pundits and experts argue about who deserves what in an uncertain future, is what we have already gained.
When they ask the question whether I’ll get back what I’ve paid into Social Security, I can’t help but think maybe I already have.