On the 77th anniversary of Social Security, we’re celebrating what has made the program so important and why it continues to be vital today. Tim Price writes that through survivors benefits, Social Security creates a widely shared safety net. Read the rest of our coverage here.
A growing number of pundits and policymakers talk about Social Security almost exclusively as a luxury for greedy seniors. But as I learned when my father passed away a week before my high school graduation, Social Security is much more than just a retirement fund (though that is an extremely important function and has rescued millions of seniors from poverty). Through its survivors benefits, it provides some guarantee of security to families of all ages and creates a safety net that many never expect to need.
As my colleague Mark Schmitt has noted, survivors benefits were established four years after the original Social Security Act was passed, but today they are an integral part of the program. As of December 2011, they accounted for 11 percent of total benefits paid, covering 6.3 million people with an average monthly benefit of $1,190. Of the beneficiaries, over 1.9 million are children, with aged spouses and parents of deceased workers accounting for another 4 million. A report from the Children’s Defense Fund notes that the value of survivors benefits for a typical family is equivalent to a $433,000 life insurance policy.
These benefits help families to pick up the pieces when tragedy strikes, allowing them to pay the rent, put food on the table, and afford other necessities despite losing a breadwinner. In this way, Social Security not only prevents financial catastrophe from compounding personal grief, but also gives workers the comfort of knowing that they will still be able to provide for their families after they’re gone. No one knows this better than newly minted vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who saved up the benefits he received after his father’s death to pay his way through college so that he could one day run for Congress and draft a plan to dismantle Social Security.
Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. Instead, I’ll draw from personal experience. As noted above, my father passed away when I was only 17 years old. On the night I was supposed to be working on a second draft of my valedictorian speech, I instead sat with my mother in a waiting room in Richmond University Medical Center, waiting for a doctor to tell us what we both already knew. My father had suffered a massive heart attack at age 45; after years of poor health, it seemed both sudden and inevitable.