Lazy Or Unlucky?

Q: In a recent column, you talked about the large percentage of people who are living on their Social Security checks. You called them unlucky. I don’t think they’re unlucky. I think they were lazy and didn’t do a very good job of planning for the future.

I am really worried that we are turning into a welfare state and that young people today are relying too much on the government to take care of them, as opposed to taking care of themselves, as my generation did. I blame the nanny-state government for all of this.

A: I’ll discuss your luck-versus-laziness argument in a minute. But I think you’re wrong about your generational generalizations. Statistics show that it’s older Americans, not young people, who rely way too much on the government for their livelihood.

These are some of the surprising statistics I pointed out in that prior column: For about 65 percent of all senior citizens, their Social Security check represents fully one-half of their total income. For one-third of older Americans, their Social Security check makes up 90 percent of their monthly income. And sadly, for 20 percent of older Americans, their Social Security check is the only income they have.

So I’m afraid that many of your generation — which, by the way, is also my generation (I’m a geezer myself) — are not the self-reliant, pull-ourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps class of people we like to think we are. As the studies show, many of us are relying way too much on Social Security (i.e., the government) to take care of us. But I should point out that it tends to be the more elderly seniors, those currently 70 and older, who depend more heavily on Social Security for their primary income.

And I’m not so sure you can entirely blame the government for that. I can show you government brochures from the very earliest days of Social Security that tell people not to rely on the government and Social Security for all of their income. These brochures talked about a “three-legged stool” for retirement. Social Security was supposed to be one leg. Savings and investments were supposed to make up the second leg. And a pension from your employer was supposed to be the third leg.

The first leg, Social Security, has always and will always be there. For a variety of reasons, Americans have never done a very good job with the second leg (savings). And we all know that American business has dropped the ball on the third leg (pensions). Pensions are now dinosaurs, replaced, if they are replaced at all, with 401(k) plans, which can really work out for some people but can be a bust for others.

So who’s to blame if the older seniors didn’t get the message and relied too much on the government to take care of them? Were they lazy or just unlucky? Obviously, some people simply didn’t plan well. But many times, it was circumstances beyond their control that drove them towards poverty.

My own parents didn’t save very much for their retirement. But when I discussed this with my then-widowed mother shortly after I started working for the Social Security Administration, she told me that even though both she and my dad were working (both at low-paying jobs that offered no pension), there was simply no money left at the end of each month after paying the rent and utility bills and buying groceries to feed four children. Putting money aside for retirement was just a pipe dream for my parents — and many like them.

And there are hundreds of other examples of circumstances that caused people to be unlucky. For example, a large number of those very poor, older senior citizens are women whose husbands wouldn’t allow them to work. Then, as they approached what was supposed to be their golden years, their husbands dumped them to marry some younger woman. Suddenly, the wife who spent a lifetime putting food on this bum’s table, washing his underwear and raising his kids, was left with a meager divorced wife’s pension from Social Security. I don’t think you would call her lazy.

The good news in this story is that every study I’ve ever seen shows that for about the past 10 to 15 years or so, more and more people have gotten serious about financial planning for their retirement years. That’s why so many people retiring today have something in those other two legs of the three-legged stool to help support them and their Social Security in retirement. So I think you’re wrong to criticize younger people. The’re more educated about Social Security than we were, and they do not expect to live off of their Social Security in retirement.

Q: In a recent column, you discussed a photograph taken in a Social Security office. And the person who took the picture encouraged others to do the same. I think you should have mentioned that it is a crime to take photographs in a federal government office.

A: Thanks for reminding me — and my readers. In fact, I had first-hand experience with that issue.

About 40 years ago, shortly after I was hired by the Social Security Administration, I was sent to their headquarters in Baltimore for training. For a neophyte government employee like me, it was a bit like a Catholic priest making his first pilgrimage to the Vatican City. I was in awe!

One day, I was walking around the outside of the headquarters complex taking pictures. All of a sudden, several federal police cars pulled up with their lights flashing and sirens blaring. I was put into the car and my camera was confiscated. After many phone calls and a lot of explaining, I was finally able to convince them that I wasn’t a terrorist, but just a naive new employee.

I got my camera back, but I lost that roll of film.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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