August 14, 2012
Reflections on Social Security from a Young Person
By: Ivy Ngo

Earlier this summer, I participated in the National Academy of Social Insurance’s seminar for young people, “Demystfying Social Security.” It was a great experience to engage with summer interns and learn from other young people on the Social Security program, and it’s reaffirmed my deep appreciation for Social Security as a key tenet of the our social safety net.

Social Security is so often thought of as a program for the elderly and those who are retired. But as a young person who hopes to be able to retire one day, I am struck by the broad impact of the program to reach nearly every American at every age, every income level, able-bodied as well as differently-abled. More than 6.5 million American children receive family income from Social Security. Specifically, more than 1 million children are kept out of poverty from Social Security benefits. And, unfortunately, a 20-year-old worker has a 3 in 10 chance of becoming disabled before reaching the normal retirement age, making Social Security Disability Income an important asset.

Much of the negative press around Social Security has accused the program of running out of money, paying out poor returns, and being an overall poor investment. In actuality, Social Security is incredibly stable. Social Security is fully financed until 2033, and even if Congress takes no action, Social Security will still be able to pay about 85% of obligations until 2086. If the future still seems uncertain, refer to Social Security’s track record: it has never missed a payment since its inception in 1935, and has consistently paid out benefits on time and in full. Social Security has outlasted wartime turmoil, Wall Street booms and busts, and political fluctuations. But most importantly, Social Security is insurance that has been there to support individual Americans through our personal life events.

This year, my father took early retirement. He came to the United States in the early 1980s as a refugee from Vietnam after years in the re-education camps – prison labor camps operated by the Vietnamese government after the end of the war. Since his arrival and resettlement, he has worked tirelessly to support my mother and I as well as our extended family here and abroad. I am so glad he was able to retire, and I am thankful that he has Social Security to provide him with some measure of economic security – he’s earned it. I have seen how tired my father became in recent years from working at a job that required him to be on his feet and mobile throughout the day. I think about how difficult it would be for him, as well as those who worked in physically demanding and labor intensive jobs, to continue working well into their 60’s.

Because of his early retirement, my father will receive a diminished benefit for the rest of his life relative to if he had retired at the normal retirement age. Social Security benefits are modest enough as it is – the average payment is $1,230. It is frustrating to me to hear arguments to reduce Social Security benefits even further – through any number of changes such as raising the retirement age or adopting a smaller measure of inflation.

These arguments are misguided but also unreflective of our country’s diversity: reductions in benefits would have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and LGBT communities. For refugees and immigrants like my father and diverse communities especially, Social Security is a highly effective anti-poverty program for communities that have historically faced barriers to accessing economic security: In 2009, 56% of unmarried elderly African Americans, 62% of unmarried elderly Hispanics, 48% of unmarried elderly Asian American Pacific Islanders, and 45% of elderly unmarried American Indians relied on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. More details on how Social Security affects communities of color and policy recommendations to strengthen the program can be found in the Diverse Elder’s Coalition recent report, Securing Our Future: Advancing Economic Security for Diverse Elders.

I am confident that Social Security will be there for me when I retire, just like it is supporting my father now, but we need to work now to combat the attacks on the program and continue to ensure that Social Security provides adequate and sufficient support to all Americans. I especially encourage my peers and other young folks to join me in making sure that Social Security stands strong for future generations to come.