Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How Easily Youth Can Diss Social Security

You know you're getting old when you start attending more funerals than weddings.

People my age have arrived at that time of life when our parents begin to suffer the travails of old age and pass away. Today I attended the funeral of the mother of a friend of mine. And I'm reminded yet again that my cohort - people who graduated college around 1990 - will be meeting under similar circumstances more and more in the next few years.

Several years ago at the funeral of another friend's father, the comparison was made between a parent's death and a mountain. As a young person, you see the mountain representing the death of a parent in the distance. It's far enough away that you don't really think about it. As you get older, the mountain gets closer and its details come more sharply into view, but it's still far enough away to not consider on a regular basis.

Then, suddenly, one day, you're at the foot of the mountain. Your parent has died, and you have no alternative but to climb that mountain of grief and loss. You've turned a corner in life, and without realizing how close you'd come, the mountain you'd seen ahead of you all these years stands at your feet.

For those of you who've already experienced the loss of a parent, is that a pretty accurate analogy?

I shared it with my friend today, whose diabetic mother had gone into the hospital a month ago with an annoying cough she couldn't get rid of. Eventually, her breathing got so belabored that even with oxygen, her heart simply couldn't keep up. They're still waiting for the results from an autopsy to learn what went wrong.

Perhaps because of my own family's travails recently, about which I've already written, I'm sensitive right now to issues involving the aged. You'll recall that when we were evaluating rest homes for my aunt in Brooklyn, our options ranged from $7,500 to $10,000 per month for an average private facility. Public city facilities would have been cheaper, of course, but then, I don't need to explain the differences between public and private care in New York City.

Getting old is expensive. Particularly in this day and age, when people are living longer, but haven't necessarily had a lucrative career that helped fortify their bank accounts. I find myself getting angry when I hear wealthy politicians and corporate types complaining about entitlement programs like Social Security as if such they're evil incarnate, or as Texas governor Rick Perry has infamously claimed, "Ponzi schemes."

Granted, a simplistic assessment of Social Security, which assumes current workers are paying for benefits received by current retirees - with no guarantee of receiving benefits when they themselves retire, seems like something Bernie Madoff dreamed up. But is Social Security, despite its faults, the corrupt, wealth-draining fraud some right-wingers like to cast it as?

Nobody gets rich off their Social Security check, yet for some people, that check is all that stands between them and utter poverty. Some critics of Social Security say it's the fault of old people for not saving enough for retirement, but how many of those critics have enjoyed a relatively high income during their working lives? Plus, the cost of living doesn't become frozen in time when one retires, and sometimes expenses incurred during old age can quickly strip even the best-planned portfolios.

Indeed, I suspect that the more steadfast a person's belief that Social Security is bad for America, the less experience they've had in dealing with older relatives who are facing daunting medical bills and other aging expenses. The real world is about as forgiving as those people who view Social Security as negatively as a Ponzi scheme.

Sure, it needs to be fixed, and among other things, its official retirement age needs to be raised. But how a society treats its elders says a lot about its values. And should we be such ogres over providing a financial cushion for our parents and grandparents - even if some of them didn't plan as fully as they could have for their golden years?

Several years ago, when everyone was bullish on the stock market, some pundits said people should have the option of investing by themselves instead of being forced to pay into Social Security. Isn't it funny how silent those people are these days, with Wall Street convulsing over the world's economic woes? How much money have you lost lately? Would you want your entire retirement income depending on the machinations of Goldman Sachs, Greece, and sub-prime lenders?

Maybe your old age will be something your family will be able to comfortably afford. But how many of today's retirees thought the same thing? And how much does Social Security cost our nation, compared with the deep poverty many Americans might suffer without it?

As you assume more and more care for the aging loved ones in your family, keep track of how helpful Social Security can be.

Maybe then you'll be more interested in preserving it for when you may need it.

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