This 81-Year-Old Star Has Never Been Hotter

Shaun O'Brien

Shaun O'Brien AFL-CIO

Okay, so you don’t quite know what to expect with that headline. I’m not talking about Betty White (age 94) or Tony Bennett (age 90). And this isn’t an AARP The Magazine cover story about Harry Potter’s Professor McGonagall...I mean Maggie Smith (yes, she is 81). 

Don’t have my number yet? Odds are you have your own number, though. 

Yes, I am talking about Social Security, and it is still the star of financial security for American families, even as it turns 81 today. More than 60 million Americans count on Social Security for its guaranteed monthly income. 

It’s not just retirees. Close to 9 million workers with disabilities get it. So do 4.3 million children. Social Security keeps more than 21 million people out of poverty. Without it, nearly half of elderly women in the United States would be poor, compared with 1 in 8 today.

Through all of its success, Social Security has remained modest. Too modest. The average monthly benefit for a retired worker is just $1,348. For workers with disabilities, it’s $1,166.

Social Security’s position atop the marquee has not always gone unchallenged. In the retirement world’s version of All About Eve, 401(k) individual savings accounts, once a bit player, first knocked guaranteed pensions out of their leading role among workplace retirement plans in the private sector. Then 401(k)s’ Wall Street and Washington publicists pushed to have Social Security cut from its starring role and replaced by privatized individual accounts. What was supposed to be individual accounts’ breakout performance in the 2005 privatization campaign directed by President George W. Bush, however, was a flop, and the campaign closed early. 

Social Security has long been working people’s choice. In 2012, the AFL-CIO called for Social Security to be expanded in the face of the growing retirement security crisis, with across-the-board benefit increases and an improved annual cost-of-living adjustment. 

Now Social Security is getting critical acclaim once again. Last month, delegates to the Democratic National Convention nominated Social Security for an even bigger starring role, committing in their platform to “expand Social Security so that every American can retire with dignity and respect, including women who are widowed or took time out of the workforce to care for their children, aging parents, or ailing family members.” This followed President Barack Obama in June calling for it to be expanded, saying “It’s time we finally made Social Security more generous and increased its benefits so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they’ve earned.” 

So, as it turns 81, Social Security’s star is burning brighter than ever. And in the words of a song Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and many others have covered, the best is yet to come.

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This has been reposted from the AFL-CIO.

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