- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

For a system created to fight poverty and assist the poor and disenfranchised, America’s Social Security system is today one of the most unjust, unfair, unequal and discriminatory government programs in existence.

Social Security is not just in trouble. Social Security is not just going bankrupt. Social Security is not just a poor return on investment. Today’s Social Security system is robbing, yes robbing, a father and mother of their ability to leave much of the money they put away for retirement to their children and grandchildren. That is unjust.

Today’s Social Security system says to single people who die before they retire, not only will you never get a dime of the money you paid in, but none of your extended family will either. If you do make it to retirement, but upon your death fit the category of never-married, widowed or divorced, and you have no children (or if you do but they are older than 18), the current system says any monies still owed you cannot be passed on to other family members like brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. That is discriminatory to those who die young and those who, for whatever reason, die single.

Today’s Social Security system says if over your first nine years of marriage, you stayed at home and raised the children while your spouse furthered his career … and then decided to marry the secretary and divorce you — he takes all the Social Security benefits, and you get none of the Social Security dollars that accrued during your nine-year marriage. If you aren’t married for a full 10 years, the first nine years and 11 months somehow don’t count when it comes to benefits. That is unfair.

Today’s Social Security system rewards some married couples, but discriminates against others. Through a complicated formula only the government could cook up, couples where both husband and wife work, will receive a smaller benefit than another couple making the same income but with only one spouse working. That treats married couples unequally.

Now there are those who claim such unequal treatment is somehow fair because it promotes the policy of one parent staying at home. Of course, it’s only fair to couples where one spouse has a job earning $45,000 a year, but it’s not so fair to couples who can only get to $45,000 if both mom and dad work. Mothers and fathers should have the right to decide how best to financially provide for their family without Uncle Sam penalizing them for it.

Another anti-family aspect of today’s system is that it actually discourages marriage among those already retired. If a romance breaks out at Shady Pines Home for the Aged between Fred, a 75-year-old widower, and Ethel, a 73-year-old widow, and they choose to marry, guess what? Uncle Sam says you can’t both keep drawing your Social Security. Based on such a system, we shouldn’t be surprised if thousands of grandpas and grandmas are shacking up at nursing homes and assisted living communities across the country. If you’ll recall, for years we had a similar “marriage penalty” embedded in our tax system that caused many married couples to pay higher taxes than if they had remained single, lived together and filed separately. Congress finally passed legislation in 2001 that greatly reduced the marriage tax penalty, and they should do the same when reforming Social Security.

Thankfully, Americans are often motivated by more than the bottom line — even their own bottom lines. In addition to getting a better return on their Social Security payments, whether through a Personal Retirement Account or some other measure, there is a moral case for reforming the current system. It’s about doing what is right, what is just, what is fair. It is time to talk about this debate in those terms.

GENEVIEVE WOOD

Vice president,

Center for a Just Society

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