Friday, February 6, 2009


I grew up in Bethesda-Chevy Chase in a neighborhood where large families were the rule rather than the exception. Due largely to their parent's Irish Catholic roots, most of my friends had at least four or more brothers or sisters. When I was 9 years old my best friend's father collapsed of a heart attack on the front steps of his home. His mother, who was pregnant at the time, was out in the front yard watching his brothers when the heartbreaking event occurred. I will never forget hearing the news and wondering whether life for them would ever be the same. In 1964, even in Bethesda-Chevy Chase, most women were focused on staying home and taking care of their families. When the family breadwinner died, it was not just a personal tragedy, but an economic one as well.

The good news is that despite having to grow up without their father, every member of my friend's family went on to become a healthy successful member of society. This was due to the courage of their mother and their ability to pull together in the most difficult times. But their path to success was not an easy one; life at times was a struggle. All of them had paper routes, many of them had to depend on scholarships to get their educations. But there was something else that played an important role. As the Social Security Administration's web site reminds us.

The loss of the family wage earner can be devastating, both emotionally and financially. Social Security helps by providing income for the families of workers who die. In fact, 98 of every 100 children could get benefits if a working parent dies. And Social Security pays more benefits to children than any other federal program.

Over the last few weeks the battle lines have been drawn in the war to "reform" Social Security. On one side are those who seek to use the benefits of the so called "ownership society" to privatize one of our nation's most successful programs. Despite my obvious skepticism, their arguments have some merit. The system as it currently stands is not set up to handle the encroaching retirement wave of the boomer generation. Young Americans are justifiably worried that when it comes time for them to head for Boca Raton, Social Security might not be very social and even less secure.

But let's think back to my friend's family. The day their dad passed away the last thing on their mind was retirement. Their larger concern, understandably, was what is going to happen to us today? Will we be able to live in the same house and have enough to eat? Will we have to put our dreams on hold to survive? In the end they made it because they had the right values and an indomitable spirit that saw them through the tough times. But, lets not kid ourselves, they also got a check from the government every month. Those survivor benefits were crucial to keeping their collective heads above water.

Today 20 percent of the people who receive social security checks are not retirees but individuals who use the funds from the system to keep their dreams and their children's dreams alive. My daughter Colleen is in the children's choir at St. Johns. Periodically during Mass she and her compatriots will sing a hymn in which the main verse notes that faith has to the power to lift mankind up "on eagles wings." My friends, in a similar fashion, for over 6 decades Social Security has lifted up and helped millions of Americans, many of them children, rise above poverty and hopelessness and despair.

The Shakespeare of our time Arthur Miller passed away last month. In his incredibly poignant play Death of a Salesman? Willie Loman, the main character, confesses to his wife, Linda, that he often finds himself feeling" kind of temporary." Miller was trying to make the point through Willy's lament that the human condition often prompts us to feel like we don't have control of our lives.

Programs like Social Security don't solve this problem, but they make it a heck of a lot easier to hang in there when the bad times come along. We must never forget that there is an extremely fine line between civilization and anarchy. Social Security has promoted an efficient and just society not only by lifting the elderly out of poverty but also by providing a strong and immutable safety net for millions of people of all ages.

No matter what happens with the reform proposals we can be sure that people will continue to meet with tragedy, make bad choices and in general have to deal with the fact that life is unfair and that the only thing certain is uncertainty.Let us hope that in the end the final propositions will continue to provide comfort and reassurance to anyone in our great land who may find themselves "feeling kind of temporary."

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