social insecurity

Our social insecurity complex

Catholics are called to account for the common good, not just personal retirement.

THE BEDRAGGLED MEN IN A SHUFFLING BREADLINE are frozen forever in bronze at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. Their somber presence captures a moment when the American narrative of manifest economic destiny was staggered into silence by the Great Depression. With millions unemployed and hungry, Roosevelt responded with work and relief programs that brought the nation back from the edge of disaster.

But Roosevelt's New Deal did more than put people back to work. It gave them hope and a sense that despite their many differences, all Americans shared equally in an epic struggle against poverty and despair, that out of economic ruin, they were working together toward a better nation. Arguably the most successful program to emerge from the New Deal era, one that literally bound Americans together, was Social Security.

That program evolved to ensure that no one would have to face a future of deprivation and struggle because of market upheavals or personal misfortune. Its intentions reflected a respect for human dignity that is essential for any truly civilized society and a wise deference to the capriciousness of fate that protected everyone, the lucky and the unlucky, together.

In a 1934 defense of Social Security, Roosevelt described how "in earlier times" individual security was assured by the "interdependence" of families and small communities, relationships that were shattered by industrialization and modernity. It was up to the nation as a whole to step in to assume that lost communal responsibility.

"This seeking for a greater measure of welfare and happiness does not indicate a change in values," he argued. "It is rather a return to values lost in the course of our economic development and expansion."

Social Security's grounding principles are worth recalling now as a different president seeks to redefine the program and dismiss those values Roosevelt hoped to restore. Promoting a limited privatization of the system, Social Security "reformists," with no apparent sense of irony, have devised a free-market fix for a system constructed in response to history's greatest free-market failure. Portraying a system approaching collapse, ignoring a $1 trillion surplus large enough to last at least until 2042, they blithely dismiss simpler solutions that would shore up Social Security indefinitely.

Their shaky scheme offers a windfall to Wall Street but promises, at best, a neutral outcome to Social Security recipients. At its worst, however, this retooling leaves future retirees vulnerable to the very outcome the system was meant to prevent, a penurious old age, while it shamefully deposits an additional burden of as much as $5 trillion onto our children and grandchildren. But the most damaging aspect of this fake reform results less from its practical drawbacks than from its more ineffable impact on the American civic psyche, the distance it moves U.S. culture from that civic solidarity that was part of the program's founding vision.

The Catholic tradition teaches that personal salvation is achieved through our experience of community. There can be no fully realized "I" without a "we." Social Security offers a neat secular embodiment of this spiritual truth. Within this oddly beloved bureaucracy, we are all members of a mystical civic body, participants in a social mystery at the core of American life: We are free to explore our personal liberty only as much and at the same time as it is intricately connected with that of our brothers and sisters in this national community.

Here is a real-world solidarity; here is a program that protects human dignity, wisely stewards our collective wealth, and contributes to a vision of our common good. Now, what exactly needs to be "fixed" about that?

Not far from that bronze breadline at the FDR memorial, you'll find this inscription of the late president's words: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." By that measure, the current Social Security privatization plan fails miserably.

We could be striving for a future where tributes to the hungry and homeless will no longer be necessary. Instead, by reprivatizing risk and reducing Social Security to just another retirement account, we abandon the common good for a pipe dream of personal enrichment and lay the keystone for the next memorial to economic casualties of the future.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the April 2005 (Volume 70, Number 4; page 49) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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