Essay by Reid Cramer
Resilience and the contract of social insurance.
The drive along the busy road just north of the Capital Beltway was familiar. The address of my destination was not. I waited for an opening, took the turn across traffic, and pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript office building I’d never noticed before. I made my way to the second floor, entered a crowded waiting room, and unexpectedly caught a whiff of the industrial solvents used to clean the linoleum floors. The room was bustling and full of humanity—young, old, and everything in between. Some waited by themselves in silence. Others huddled together, speaking a variety of languages. I could hear English, Spanish, Amharic, and others I didn’t recognize. Although I wasn’t sure why any of these people were there, somehow we had all arrived at the same place: the U.S. Social Security office in Silver Spring, Maryland. As for me, I had come to tell the government that my wife, the love of my life, had recently passed away.
Sonya was the most extraordinary woman. She was beautiful, intelligent, creative, and a tremendously caring and dedicated mother to our two children. I thought she was magic, and I missed her beyond words. I still do. She was 50 years old when she died and had spent her last two and a half years navigating life with an aggressive sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. I was pretty sure the Social Security Administration wouldn’t have much interest in the specifics of her journey or how deeply I’d loved her. And under the fluorescent lights it wasn’t easy to call forth her spirit through my grief and bewilderment. But I thought my children might be entitled to some benefits, and I felt obligated—for their sake—to find out.
No one had mentioned the possibility of Social Security survivor benefits. None of the family and friends who gathered around us after Sonya’s death and sent the condolence letters that were piling up at home had said anything. Neither had any of the doctors, nurses, and caregivers who’d treated Sonya along the way. And I wasn’t actually sure myself. This was especially ironic since my own father had passed away when I was in middle school and I’ve spent decades of my professional life as a policy analyst, often studying the workings of other public assistance programs. I’d written policy papers about how these programs ought to be reformed to more effectively support families in need. I’d crunched numbers and done field visits. I was far better equipped than most Americans to manage the bureaucratic consequences of a spouse’s death. And yet, here I was, alone in a crowded waiting room, at a loss as for what to expect. Even the Internet seemed powerless to answer my questions. Visiting the Social Security Administration’s website had left me with more questions than answers. So I ended up here, sitting on a plastic chair, waiting for my number to be called.
Were our teenagers, 15 and 17 years old, entitled to financial assistance from the government? If so, how much? Did it matter that Sonya had worked and paid taxes? That she was a devoted mother? Were the circumstances of her illness relevant? How did our past income, current assets, or future financial hardship figure into the equation? The answers to these questions are actually codified in Social Security’s legal statute, reflecting a larger social contract. It was unsettling how unsure I was of its most basic terms.
Sonya’s sudden absence was a profound emotional shock for our whole family. Yet as the surviving parent, I knew there were immediate financial repercussions, too. Like many families, we had come to rely on two incomes. Losing her earnings and caregiving would completely upend our family finances. While I knew our lives would change, I worried about how to protect my children from the uncertainty of the future and the reality of a drastically diminished family income.
As I sat by myself in the busy waiting room, I wasn’t even sure what sum would enable our children to resiliently cope with the loss of their mother. One thing I did know: Sonya would want me to figure out what they were entitled to receive and make a rightful claim. She would want our children to have the security—financial as well as emotional—to move forward in their lives.
Realizing the depths of my knowledge gaps, I began looking into the origins of the U.S. Social Security program. Its history was clarifying. From its inception, the impetus was to create a broad social safety net to strengthen the resilience of families facing periods of financial stress throughout the course of life. It wasn’t just for retirees; children and their economic well-being have always been at the core of the program’s mission.
The U.S. Social Security system was initially established in the 1930s, as one of the central pillars of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Great Depression had indiscriminately wiped out both the income and savings of millions of families across the country. Misery was widespread, exposing the political and material challenges of managing an urbanized, manufacturing economy. Early 20th century industrial capitalism had become an engine of inequality, creating great fortunes but also economic volatility. Following the first wave of Depression-era policy that focused on relief, recovery, and financial reform, Roosevelt pledged to deploy the federal government to provide “security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”1 Roosevelt assigned his dynamic labor secretary, Frances Perkins, to translate this vision into a legislative proposal. Politically, this was difficult terrain to navigate. Perkins had to allay conservative concerns that the bill would “alarm business” along with liberal worries that it would be “too weak” to make a difference. Her response was ambitious. In a national radio address delivered to galvanize support for the bill, Perkins proclaimed: “We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future.”2
When the Social Security Act of 1935 was signed into law, it established a far-reaching system of federal benefits that reset the terms of the country’s social contract. It created a federal program to support retirees, the most widely known benefit, but at the same time it also created a series of grant programs so that states could provide additional assistance to the aged, the unemployed, families with dependent children, and the disabled. The fundamental rationale of the entire legislative package was to erect, in Roosevelt’s words, “safeguards against misfortune.” The creation of social security was nothing less than the advent of an American system of social insurance. It rewrote the social contract.
Even before the first retirement benefits were distributed, the Act was amended in 1939 to extend benefits to the children and wives of deceased or retired workers.3 From its earliest years, Social Security was intended as a means to provide economic security for the whole family when they were most vulnerable, regardless of their stage of life.4 On behalf of us all, government would ensure families have access to cash to offset income involuntarily lost through a broad and diverse set of circumstances.
Fast-forward 75 years and our Social Security system has evolved in many ways. More workers are covered and more benefits are provided.5 But the funding mechanism has stayed the same: a tax on income, collected as a deduction from every paycheck. The rate of that tax, known as “FICA” for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, has increased steadily, from two percent in the 1940s to 12.4 percent in the 1990s, where it has plateaued. The income subject to the tax, called a wage base, has risen over time but is capped, so there is a limit on what high earners pay.6 Receiving support does not depend on how much money a person made or how much they have saved. Once someone has worked enough to qualify for Social Security benefits (generally 10 years of earnings), enrollment is automatic and access is universal. Benefit levels do vary so that higher earners receive marginally higher benefits, but Social Security payouts are generally progressive because they represent a higher proportion of earnings for workers at lower income levels.7
While some argue that this financing approach, benefit structure, and universality are important for maintaining political support for the program, my experience was revealing the limits of the public’s understanding of the program’s basic structure and the potential benefits at stake. In fact, contemporary discussions of the Social Security program’s future usually focus on its retirement provisions, rather than its impact on children. It’s true that over two-thirds of beneficiaries are retired workers, so it makes sense that there’s more public attention given to eligibility ages and cost-of-living adjustments for seniors than there is to the role of the program in assisting families with dependent children. Yet 4.3 million children will receive Social Security benefits in 2019 because one or both of their parents are disabled, retired, or deceased.8 They represent about seven percent of all Social Security beneficiaries. Children also benefit when others members of their household, such as grandparents, receive support as retirees.9 In 2017, disbursements directly to children topped $31 billion (about 3.3 percent of all Social Security payments). That means the Social Security Administration pays more benefits to children than any other federal program.10
While that is a significant amount of cash flowing to families with children, these child benefits are actually part of a much larger social policy endeavor. Pie charts of the federal budget reveal that the majority of all spending is in support of social insurance and safety net objectives. Social Security accounts for roughly 25% of federal spending, the health programs of Medicare and Medicaid account for another 25%, and additional programs for families facing economic hardship, including housing, food, and other cash assistance for those with low incomes, accounts for another 10%. Collectively, all of these government efforts—and the influx of cash they offer directly to families—are intended to provide economic stability and foster resiliency among families. They play a direct role in keeping tens of millions of people out of poverty each year.11
Just looking at where the money goes, these programs are at the core of what government does. “Promote the general welfare,” is right there in the preamble to the Constitution: it is one of the basic reasons we have a government. Indeed, the preamble of the Social Security Act of 1935 uses the same language and states its purpose directly as to “provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits,” and by enabling “more adequate provisions” for dependent children, the disabled, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the unemployed.12 The government programs launched in the 1930s, often considered separately, in fact have a common origin. They reflect a social contract in which the government explicitly took on responsibility for the economic wellbeing of families to counterbalance arbitrary fluctuations of the economy and the uncertainties of life.
The consensus behind these efforts has weakened over time, along with rising political divides. Reagan-era attacks on big government took on welfare programs, and eventually led to calls to curtail Social Security benefits. Conservative critics, such as former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have described Social Security as an entitlement program with unsustainable finances that is exploding the national debt. It’s an astonishing conclusion given Ryan’s own biography. He has recounted how, after he lost his father when he was a teen, Social Security payments to his family enabled him to attend college. At a consequential moment in his life, government support made a difference.
Perhaps Ryan’s story explains why the conservative critique of Social Security has been slow to take hold. Proposals to dismantle broad-based protections and shift risks back onto families have repeatedly run into political resistance, even if they never completely fade from the policy agendas of libertarians, deficit hawks, and anti-tax Republicans. Meanwhile, Social Security now has a generations-long track record of providing income security at times of life when people become financially vulnerable, such as when an older person retires from the workforce, a worker becomes disabled, or a child loses a parent. The fact that any of us can face this kind of economic instability contributes to Social Security’s enduring and broad public support.
Despite this support, Social Security hasn’t been particularly well defended by its proponents. Part of the problem may be basic marketing. Potential recipients are often unaware of the protections the program provides, until, like me, their economic circumstances change and they find their way to a Social Security office. If people don’t know the extent of program benefits, they can’t defend it when it receives criticism. As I discovered, retirement is not the only time when families need help replacing income. The designers of the Social Security system recognized that every child is at risk of losing a working parent, either through death or disability, so they built a universal system, one to which every worker contributes and from which everyone can benefit.
Scanning the faces of the people waiting at my local Social Security office I imagined all the stories behind the relationships on display. Couples chatted side-by-side, solitary people bided their time in the hard plastic chairs, and the place teemed with children climbing in and out of the laps of parents and grandparents, visual evidence that Social Security is not just for retirees. Finally, I was called to the counter.
In a blur of instruction, I was told my children were entitled to survivor benefits and I was given a small stack of forms to fill out. Before the amount could be calculated, I had to prove that my kids were truly mine, that they were enrolled in school, and that their mother had indeed died. A kind and knowledgeable bureaucrat slowed down and explained that I needed to bring back a death certificate, two birth certificates, verification of school attendance, and our bank’s routing number.
As I continued to listen, I felt queasy about the money. No amount of cash could compensate or compare with my grief. I felt guilty, too. Others certainly faced greater economic challenges. A proper reckoning with the country’s legacy of racial injustice would rightly place other families well ahead of mine. I didn’t think my claim was stronger than theirs. But I did feel that these government programs should work for everyone, including my children. And so I persisted.
Two trips to the high school followed (I learned only after the first trip that the school forms needed to be notarized). Driving in traffic was frustrating. But crying alone in the car was cathartic. I arrived back at the waiting room worn out and a little red-eyed, but truth be told, the process had been pretty straightforward. Soon, I was summoned to the counter again. The same kind man who had given me my original instructions was there to greet me. Across the crowded office, I had seen him speaking a variety of languages, competent and sympathetic in all of them. I appreciated the way he brought a personal connection to a cold, albeit public, transaction. I handed him my paperwork.
As he looked it over, I stood there thinking that I still didn’t know what to expect. My efforts convinced me that my children should receive some degree of public support to soften the stress on our family budget. According to the Social Security Administration, these survivor payments are intended to “provide for the necessities of life for family members and help make it possible for those children to complete high school.”13 I wondered what the amount would be. A monthly benefit of $50 would be more than nothing, but feel far from fair. Maybe $500 a month per child would be a reasonable amount, I thought. It would augment our family finances and be a validation of Sonya’s contributions to society and the Social Security Trust Fund. The more I thought about Sonya, the larger I wanted the benefits to be. Even if Social Security offered my kids thousands of dollars a month it would still fall short of capturing her worth.
As I waited for a response from the patient man behind the counter, I thought about what made my family’s circumstances different from other families experiencing a financial shock. In many respects, Social Security benefits for children have a lot in common with public assistance programs for families living on low incomes and facing economic hardship. Today’s policy debates differentiate between Social Security, as a program for retirees, survivors, and the disabled, and other public assistance programs labeled as welfare. In practice, they are responding to similar needs. While it is true that bureaucratic oversight has been broken up to administer these programs, Frances Perkins didn’t distinguish between social insurance and safety net programs. She wove both ideas into the original bill. She recognized that children don’t control their family’s economic circumstances; they can’t ensure rents and utility bills are paid when their family’s income drops suddenly. That’s why all of these efforts are fundamentally part of the same project, created to help people access, when necessary, financial resources to support their economic resilience. They should be considered in tandem.
Unfortunately, they aren’t. Currently, there are a wide array of federal programs that get labeled as welfare, including the cash assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI); sources of in-kind support programs, such as SNAP food assistance and rental housing assistance; as well as subsidies that run through the tax code, such as Earned Income and Child tax credits. Each of these efforts is overseen by a different agency, including the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and the Treasury. While there are many advantages to having national programs in place, it has created an uneven landscape of coverage that leaves gaps that many families and children fall through.
Because today’s policymakers don’t view Social Security and public assistance programs as connected, the rules for accessing them are vastly different. While children are now issued Social Security cards soon after birth, enrollment in public assistance programs is not automatic. People apply to prove their need, often though a laborious process called a “means test.” Even social workers have difficulty keeping track of the plethora of eligibility rules for these public assistance programs. Application forms can be long, and require many more documents than I was asked to provide at the Social Security office. This reflects how two distinct strands of administrative discretion have developed—low for Social Security and high for public assistance. As a result, Social Security offers near universality, with 98% of children receiving survivor benefits if they lose a working parent.14 Even though I wasn’t aware of Social Security’s benefits when I began my application process, I was finding out that it works. In contrast, even if families qualify for support from other public assistance program they are not guaranteed of receiving benefits because the allocation of federal funds is limited. In fact, only 31% of families eligible to receive assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program do so, a figure that has decreased over the last fifteen years with more application hurdles, stagnant funding, and reduced benefits.15
In recent years, a number of states have begun to acknowledge the enrollment challenges for public assistance programs. States as diverse as Florida, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas have set up online portals to help families identify the range of public benefits for which they may be qualified. These efforts are enabling families to claim a range of federal benefits, beyond Social Security, that had previously been left on the table, including tax refunds, health care services for children, and food and housing assistance. Despite these efforts, the pervasive reality for most potential beneficiaries is uncertainty.
This is a problem not only for the people seeking assistance, but for all of us. When we don’t understand how the safety net works and the benefits it provides should the need arise, then it is easier to discount the work of government and harder to appreciate the social contract we’ve built together. If our goal as a society is to ensure that children are raised in economically healthy families, maintaining the dichotomy between social insurance and public assistance doesn’t help. Neither does distinguishing between circumstances that make a child worthy of receiving support. If social policy cares about children and their future, the source of children’s hardship shouldn’t matter as much as creating conditions where they have the security to grow toward a promising future. Children who struggle because of a parent’s job loss or persistently low income deserve support just as much as children whose family finances are imperiled by a parent’s death or disability, and aid should be accessible to all of these families.
Thinking about it in these terms, the programs that have typically been called public assistance and welfare are also mainstays of our social insurance system. To shore up this system, future policy efforts should place a premium on coordination between what are now disparate programs across the government. The overarching goal guiding policymakers should be to provide social protections from a wide range of circumstances that create economic insecurity, including families with persistent or episodic low incomes.
My own experience was confirming that we need to publicize all of these programs better, starting with Social Security, because it will help more Americans recognize that these programs are intended to work for them. At some point in our life, any of us may need a social safety net and we should design a system that works for everyone. The current political climate is fraying our social contract and undermining a shared understanding that, as a society, we are stronger when we look out for each other and build a healthy foundation for the next generation. A commitment to strengthening our social safety net is one strategy for helping to rebuild that social contract and fortify the idea that “we are all in this together.”
Eventually, the kindly man behind the counter explained that my children would be getting survivor benefits based on their mother’s contributions to the Social Security system. They would, he explained, each receive $817 a month until they turned 18. If she had earned more—and thus contributed more through her payroll taxes—their benefit would have been bigger, if she had earned less, their benefit would have been smaller. As their parent, I would receive the money on their behalf, he said.
He told me that I would have to sign a form each year attesting that I either spent this money on their care or saved it for them. Knowing that money is fungible, I asked how I should track this. The man said it would be easiest for me to check the box affirming I had spent it on their care. As a policy wonk, I began to ask about whether this approach led to confusion and might not be the best practice. Then I stopped. I realized he had given me the number I was waiting to hear: $817.
I did some quick math. My daughter was a senior in high school, soon to be 18. Her benefits would accrue for a few months until she graduates in the spring. My son would receive assistance for two and a half years, with direct deposits into my bank account—the one that used to be a joint account. Although the amount is much less than Sonya would have earned had she lived, this is real money. It would stabilize our family finances in the short-term and help us plan for the future.
My children weren’t yet wage earners and had little regard for the challenges of working to support a family. Their work was school, which was hard enough for them to navigate in those bewildering days even with the outpouring of love and affection they were receiving from their extended community. The loss of their mother created layers of uncertainty, but they weren’t looking too far ahead. That was my job, and it was now one I would have to manage alone. These checks from the public purse would help. Greatly.
A few months after the deposits started to arrive in my account, I called a family meeting around the dinner table. I made a point of telling my son and daughter about their Social Security survivor benefits. I wanted them to know how they are benefitting from this public program and how it reflects a collective investment in their future. I told them that I believe in social insurance, and that as a matter of justice and equity we need government to act on behalf of every child, including them. I told them that as they get older it would be their responsibility to make sure others can benefit too. I told them that I am grateful that they are receiving this support. I know my kids are worth it. Yours are too.
1 - Presidential statement of Franklin D. Roosevelt upon signing the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935.
2 - Social Security Administration. “Social Insurance for U.S.” National Radio Address delivered by Frances Perkins, February 25, 1935.
3 - Patricia P. Martin and David A. Weaver. “Social Security: Program and Policy History” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 66, No. 1, 2005.
4 - Christopher Tamborini, Emily Cupito, and Dave Shoffner. “A Profile of Social Security Child Beneficiaries and their Families.” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 1, 2011.
5 - Originally, only workers in commerce and industry were covered (about half the workforce), but today the program covers more than 95 percent of jobs.
6 - The income limit subject to FICA taxes is adjusted annually, roughly tied to wage growth. In 2018, it was set at $128,400.
7 - Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Top Ten Facts about Social Security.” Washington, DC. 2019.
8 - Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 2017.
9 - Social Security Administration, Child Beneficiaries and Poverty, March 2015.
10 - Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 2017.
11 - The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that without the support of these government policies, either from safety net programs or other income supports like Social Security, the poverty rate would have been over 25 percent in 2016, nearly double the official estimate of 14.0 percent. Arloc Sherman, Issac Shapiro, and Robert Greenstein. “Census Data Show Robust Progress Across the Board in 2016 in Income, Poverty, and Health Coverage.” Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 2017.
12 - Preamble of Social Security Act of 1935. [H.R. 7260], August 14, 1935.
13 - Social Security Administration. “Benefits for Children.” 2018.
14 - Eligibility for survivor benefits for children is based on the age and work history of the deceased parent. The 2% of children who lose a working parent but don’t receive benefits most likely lost a parent who did not earn enough work credits to qualify for assistance.
15 - U.S. Department of Health and Human Service. Welfare Indicators and Risk Factors. Annual Report to Congress. 2016.