The White House has a full plate. Not only is it unsure of the outcome of its involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan; and unclear about its relationship with Europe, Iran and Syria, it has taken on a new chore: Revamping Social Security.
Social Security provides more than just retirement income. The program also includes disability insurance, which accounts for about 15 percent of the overall cost of Social Security. More than 7 million received disability benefits in 2004. Of those claimants, nearly 30 percent have been diagnosed with a mental disorder other than retardation. The average monthly benefit is $790.
My uncle Bobby spent much of his 20s and his 30s drifting across the country, getting himself tangled up with the law and passing in and out of homeless shelters. From time to time, my father would receive bizarre letters and incoherent phone calls from Bobby, delusional reminders that at least he was still alive. Eventually he was institutionalized, and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 2005, Bobby, 46, is living in his own apartment in Bloomington, Indiana, receiving the medication that he needs, and taking part in a government sponsored program to engage citizens with mental and emotional disabilities. Beyond the economic contributions of my family, Social Security disability insurance provides his only income, roughly $700 a month, and is an essential contribution to his treatment, his ability to live independently, and to eat three meals a day.
Anecdotes like Bobby's story are a simple reminder of what makes the United States the kind of country it is. The world's wealthiest government funds Social Security to help ensure that everyone can provide for him/herself with some level of dignity. The poverty line however is dependent only upon family size and not the city of residence. The federal poverty line for one person is $8,980 ($30,960 for a family of eight,) but some areas of the United States, at a minimum, a single person would need at least $33,000 per year just to meet basic needs of shelter (the most expensive need.) Payments do not account these regional variations in the cost of living. And even in Bloomington, $700 a month would present a challenge for the most frugal of spenders.
Anybody who has seen a bit of the world will know that there are plenty of countries in which it is not uncommon to see elderly, infirm, and/or mentally disabled individuals begging for food. By most objective measures, this observation would seem to indicate of our health as a society, and test the social contract between the government and the governed. Not everybody agrees with this assessment of course, and thus the controversy. If you have been paying attention to the news lately, it is obvious that a new crisis is shaping up over how, or if, Social Security will survive the decades to come.
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