Retirement: Sitting on a One-Legged Stool

fdr social security agency

Endangered legacy: FDR signing Social Security Act (1935)

As Janet Heinritz-Canterbury of the California Alliance for Retired Americans explains it, retirement in America has historically rested on a three-legged stool – the pension from  your job, income from your own investments and assets, and Social Security.

But where are most Americans today in their ability to even contemplate retirement?  Most of us no longer get pensions from our jobs; what investments we may have are losing money while home prices have declined; and now some members of Congress and possibly President Obama are out to substantially lower Social Security benefits.

According to the American Association of Retired People (AARP), a frightening 35 percent of Americans over 65 currently rely only on Social Security (an average person gets benefits of $14,000/year) to survive.  On January 1st of this year and continuing for the next 19 years, an additional 10,000 people A DAY will be turning 65.  Our nation could be facing an explosion of old-age poverty.

So why, I wonder, aren’t people up in arms about efforts to dismantle (or at least weaken) Social Security that has been contemplated by the Congressional “Super Committee”?  Is it that no one thinks they’ll ever get old?  Or is it, as some have suggested, that opponents of the program have already convinced most youngish Americans that Social Security is fatally flawed and won’t be there for them anyway?

When Social Security was begun in 1935 it was seen as an income support for working families who previously were responsible for supporting their aged parents.  It’s essentially an insurance plan into which we and our employers each pay 6.2 percent of our salary that later pays monthly benefits based on our lifelong earnings.  It is our money supporting ourselves and each other in a “we’re in it together” approach.

vivian rothsteinAccording to Greg Akili of Social Security Works (and a California state assembly candidate), there are a variety of proposals to weaken the program now on the table including tinkering with the cost of living adjustments, raising the retirement age to 70, and instituting a means test that would turn it into a welfare program — with all that implies.  Proposals to strengthen Social Security include raising the cap on annual income that is taxed for the program from $108,000 to $150,000.  This particular change alone would keep the program solvent for the next 75 years.

To stay informed and get involved in efforts to protect this important leg of your retirement stool, sign the petition to protect Social Security for yourself and your generation.

Vivian Rothstein
The Frying Pan 

About Vivian Rothstein

Vivian Rothstein has been employed at LAANE since January 2003 after many years of working with LAANE as an ally. She has a long history as a community organizer, beginning with her work in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1965. Her experience includes organizing in low-income communities around welfare and housing rights, involving citizens in issues related to U.S. foreign policy, and reproductive rights campaigns. Vivian founded one of the first independent women’s liberation organizations in the 1970s. For ten years she served as executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, one of the largest Southern California nonprofits serving homeless adults and families and battered women and their children. She directed the union/community-led Respect at LAX project (in which LAANE was a lead partner), aimed at raising wages for service workers at the airport. Vivian later directed Santa Monicans for Responsible Tourism, the LAANE project that worked to lift wages in the booming Santa Monica tourism industry. In addition to her role as deputy director she oversees LAANE’s development team and Century Blvd and Long Beach Hospitality Projects and works closely with LAANE’s interfaith partner, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Development (CLUE). Vivian attended UC Berkeley and holds a master’s degree in administration from Antioch University.


  1. According to me…

    ZERO percent of Americans relied on Social Security before 1940.

    How is it now… 70 years later… that 35% of people over 65 do? And further, that such a situation is frightening?

    First, there is no such thing as retirement. It’s merely a description of a mode of living, where people CHOOSE to stop being productive, generally (yes, some people stop being productive because of incapacity… but that can happen at any age).

    The decision to STOP being productive is only possible with wealth. There are no other means.

    Only wealthy nations can even imagine such a mode of living… it is a privilege of wealth, and is virtually unknown to all of mankind for most of recorded history.

    Capitalism has made widespread wealth possible such that wealth can be accumulated, and the choice to cease a net productive life… shifting over to a consumption of saved wealth, can occur.

    IF however, certain persons, or even an entire nation fail to remain productive enough to allow for such a choice, then that choice must vanish, returning back to the earlier times.

    It seems clear to me that people somehow think they are entitled to this mode of living… regardless of if they have earned and saved enough to support it… demanding instead that others hand over their wealth, allowing for idle years.

    We are spoiled… and shameless in our theft of younger generations…

    When did theft become a virtue?

    Through most of the 1900′s, people took far, far more than they ever put in to SS… and the Supreme Court ruled that SS is a welfare program (not a retirement program), or so I hear. But given the strain that put on SS, the tax structure has shifted greatly since the early 70′s… and younger people will have no hope at all of getting out what they “contributed” (at the point of a gun).

    This great ponzi scheme turned welfare program benefited no more than two generations… everyone else is taking it in the shorts.

    May Fuller was the first SS recipient. She put less than $50 into SS, and got out $23,000… a 46,000% return on “investment”.

    As with all Ponzi schemes, the ones that get in at the top of the pyramid are the ones that come out ahead… waaaaaayyyy ahead.

    We’ve transferred mass amounts of wealth to others so that they can play for 20 years… sacrificing our “salad days” in the process.

    It can only get worse.

    The truth is… plan on working your entire life to pay into this SS Ponzi scheme… a return to days where retirement was simply unknown.

    Let’s here it for socialism! yea.

    It’s a great idea until you run out of other peoples money.

    • signalfire1 says:

      Using May Fuller as your example is disingenuous, at best. Most of us put 10s of thousands in over the course of 30 years or more of working, and we had no choice. I could have ‘saved for my retirement’ and invested in stocks and gold and silver and real estate too, but the government was taking the money away from me first. I want that money back, and I deserve it back with interest, too, especially since the Federal Reserve has completely inflated the cost of everything with their out of control and criminal money-printing. As far as ‘living on only 14K a year’, I’m astonished at how many seniors plead poverty, but are unwilling to live two or three to a household. Housing is the single biggest expense followed by utilities and shared these are very reasonable. If they insist on living alone, they shouldn’t complain about the costs associated with that.


  3. harry wood says:

    I am in favor of raising the limit on the amount of income subject to the SS tax and have been for a long time. It is a social program and should be run like one. I also took charge of the other two legs of my retirement stool, I have a small pension and a small IRA, both of which provide more than social security.

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