This August marks the 75th anniversary of a program that has lifted millions of Americans out of poverty and helped them cope with the economic uncertainties of retirement, disability and the death of family wage-earners: Social Security.
There's no question that we would have a tougher time without this innovative program, which was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aug. 14, 1935.
Today, many Americans tend to forget how far-reaching Social Security is, and how important it is to our nation and to our history. They tend to think it's only for old people, that it doesn't pay out enough, and that we should change it, privatize it or do away with it. People debated the potential merits of Social Security mightily when it was created back in 1935 and, no doubt, they'll be debating those merits for many years to come.
But in this anniversary year, I think it's important to consider what the program has achieved over the past 75 years and what it means to us now.
Today, many people joke about going to the poorhouse when they are besieged by big bills. But in the years before Social Security, the poorhouse was a very real place.
Without the promise of retirement income, people who lacked pensions were forced to work for as long as physically possible. When they couldn't work any longer, many destitute seniors lived out the rest of their lives in one of the nation's many literal poorhouses, or "alms" houses.
People who became disabled and unable to work were forced to rely on what charity they could find. If a family's wage-earner died or became disabled, his or her family members also were left without any firm social safety net.
Social Security made working Americans a basic promise: If you pay into this program during your working life, your retirement will be more secure. Your family will have at least a modest income in retirement or if you are disabled or die. The average annual benefit for Social Security recipients is $13,000.
The program also elevated the moral status of the United States: We became a nation that could pride itself in looking after its citizens by providing them a social safety net.
Without Social Security today, nearly one out of every two elderly people and 55 percent of all disabled people and their families would live in poverty. Social Security also prevents 1.3 million children from living in poverty.
In Montana, nearly one in five Montana residents receives Social Security benefits. And the program prevents more than 62,000 Montana seniors from living in poverty.
Most recently, Social Security has come under threat from those who propose cutting or changing the program as a way to reduce the national debt. This isn't fair. Social Security benefits belong to the working people who paid into the program and shouldn't be tampered with. Social Security didn't cause the deficit and it shouldn't be used to fix it.
Likewise, raising the retirement age as a way to trim Social Security is unfair to those who have been paying into the program and hope to benefit from it when they retire. Under current law, the program's full retirement age is gradually shifting from age 65 to age 67 for those who turn 62 in 2022 or later. That represents a 13 percent cut in monthly benefits for those born in 1960 or later. If the age is raised to 69 or 70, as is proposed by some in Congress, that will result in an additional 13 percent to 20 percent cut in monthly benefits.
Public opinion polls show that these changes are unpopular and that most Americans hold Social Security in high esteem. Rather than trimming the program, we should look at how it might be strengthened for future generations.
Through multiple wars and myriad hard times, Social Security has persevered and I'm optimistic that it will overcome this latest round of challenges, too. Passing this law 75 years ago was a tremendous achievement and one that we should celebrate triumphantly today.
John Melcher served four terms in the U.S. House and two terms in the U.S. Senate. He lives in Missoula.