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New York Times lead article on Thursday, November 24, 2005, photo by Jeff Topping, Getty Images

Safety Nets Crumbling: Social Security

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: November 27, 2005
Latest Update: November 27, 2005

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This essay was prepared for one of our box sculptures for Naked Space Love 1A Performance Art Exhibit on Tuesday, November 29, 2005. Look carefully at this Getty photo. The older man in front looks almost as content as Cheney to me. Maybe he's a Bush supporter. Maybe he has wealth. But on all the other faces I see intensity, anxiety, concern. Mine is one of them. I worked all my life. But I wanted to be a teacher more than anything else in the world. And I have been, and it was wonderful. But now I'm seventy and have cancer.

I worked for a public university because I came from a very poor family and the promise of a secure income and insurance for my family were among the most important of my concerns. I did listen last year when one of my bright and promising students spoke in favor of privatizing social security because to him it was just a tax. Just a tax I had paid all my life so that my elders could meet the increasing costs of ill health and inability to work as they grew older. Sure, lots of people were greedy and retired in their fifties to luxuries I would never be able to afford, but surely the government would try to fix some of those holes. Just a tax that made sense for our money to take care of our elders as future generations would pay while they were young, so that those that could no longer work would be safe.

Instead of fixing the system, Bush gave a war that now our young people can't afford to pay for, so of course, social security is just another tax. To me social security was a contract with the future. Those of us who lived on earned income and didn't choose to forsake our goals to gather wealth are now left with a broken contract. As a lawyer I thought contracts had to be honored. I thought our people were committed to family values and protecting one another, and things like pride of country, which to me includes honoring our long-term commitments.

Maybe some of this is what you see in the faces above. I don't have the answers. I pray that my husband and I will manage the debts of health care and taxes, which never seem to work for us as they do for the rich. But I know that the social issue of safety nets is one that will concern every generation that follows us as much as it does us. I know also that family values are a part of this safety net question. Family values don't end with tax discussions and abortion issues. They end with making our world a loveable world in which elders and children and those who need help through crises find support and sustenance as well as the competitive corporate leaders who presently use their wealth to distort law and governance to their own advantage.

Talk about it. To your family, to your friends, to your neighbors, to strangers. We need to trust one another to demand and enforce governance by all, for all, not just for the few who sold a brilliant idea that probably wasn't theirs to start with anyway.

Discussion Questions

  1. If social security is just a tax, who paid it all their lives?

    Consider that for many of us to pay social security was never a choice.

  2. How does population growth enter this issue?

    Consider that the pyramid with greater numbers of young and fewer old at the top no longer describes our population. Better standards of living and better health knowledge has resulted in longer lives, more elderly. Consider that the real underlying issues of political squandering of the money for social programs has not been addressed since Roosevelt's New Deal in the Thirties. As always, social issues are complex.

  3. Why are intelligent, sensitive young people likely to see social security as just a tax?

    Consider that where we had a surplus when this administration began, we now face billions of dollars of debt to China for a war that turns out not to have been nnecessary to the country's protection, but to it's administrations ego. Now, that's a left perspective. But if you're going to take a right perspective, what about the huge debt to China?

    Consider that when our grandchildren try to pay this debt, if they try to pay it, then they will be taxed beyond the ability to pay, and will need the very safety nets that were destroyed in the inerest of war and supremacy over collaborative global growth.

  4. From what perspective are these questions asked, and some plausible answers offered?

    Consider that jeanne is speaking from the perspective of one who paid social security taxes all her life, and who opposed the war in Iraq. That's a bias, folks. You gotta take that into consideration.

  5. What's the social complexity that pops up when we deal with elders asking now for consideration after they've given all their lives?

    Consider that this is a social issue. Parents care for children, for the most part, willingly and happily. They don't ask much of their children in return. Mom says she doesn't need any help in the kitchen. Dad always pays for the movies. But as they get older, life's toll and disappointments sometimes mean that they get a little more tired and would appreciate a little more help. But it usually comes out as "You kids never help, and expect me to do everything." It's like parents are trying to collect on their social capital interest all at once, never having asked for any interest before. You wouldn't put your money in a bank that gave you no interest. Banks give interest over time. They don't let you ask for it all at once whenever you decide to. But Mom and Dad didn't want to take interest back from you. Sometimes now, they just need a little help, and they aren't comfortable with asking any more than you are comfortable with the way they sometimes ask, as though you had never offered or tried to help. All these complex social dyanamics are a part of caring for each of us as we grow older and need at least a little interest we never asked for or accepted before.

    Talk about it. Tell stories about it. Narrative helps to approach issues that hurt, that change status, that demand awareness of what we would prefer to deny.

Box Sculpture Thoughts

  1. "Economic distress will teach men, if anything can, that realities are less dangerous than fancies, that fact-finding is more effective than fault-finding." Progress and Power, 1935, By Carl Lotus Becker, from Bartlett's, at p. 738.

  2. Information for elders on choosing drug plans: Help with Making the Drug Decision

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