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Unkind Cuts

Ron Wayne

AS A RETIREE FOR WHOM Social Security payments are my financial foundation, it’s worrying to hear about a potential cut in benefits 11 years from now—because I’ve seen this movie before.

If Congress does nothing, benefits would drop 23% in 2034. It’s an unfathomable situation, but one that most pundits believe is unlikely. Let’s hope. Thankfully, I feel secure that my state pension—one third of my monthly income—will stay solvent.

More than 40 years ago, Congress and President Reagan made significant changes to Social Security’s rules, including one that would have hurt my family if it had happened just a few years earlier. As a fulltime college student in the 1970s, I received a monthly payment from Social Security because my father was disabled by a stroke when I was 12 years old.

Since 1981, payments to children of retired, disabled or deceased parents typically cease at age 18 or upon high school graduation. The policy changed because many elected leaders believed needs-based financial aid programs, such as Pell grants, would fill the void for lower-income families. At the time, student enrollment and eligibility could not be readily verified, as it can today, thanks to the electronic filing of the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. In 1978, the Social Security Administration estimated that as much as $150 million a year was being overpaid because students were no longer going to college fulltime.

Although the benefits weren’t needs-tested, it was reasonable to assume that a college student whose parent was disabled, retired or dead didn’t have significant family income. Average 1972 benefits were $1,017 for students from the lowest income families (under $2,500 a year) and $1,344 for students from the highest income group (over $20,000), according to a 1977 study by the Congressional Budget Office.

I can’t recall precisely how much I received each month, but I think it was about $100. It certainly helped. I attended a state university that had much higher in-state tuition than most others. I was fortunate that my grandfather paid my tuition for all four years, but the Social Security payments helped considerably, especially with room and board. I also worked part-time and summers.

Could I have gone to Penn State or any other college without the help of Social Security? Yes, but it wouldn’t have been as easy, and I doubt I’d have been eligible for Pell grants or other assistance because my mother was still working.

Because of the help I received, I’ve always been happy to pay my share of Social Security during my 40-plus years of work. But today, my benefits are more than a helping hand. They’re my bedrock. I hope Congress finds a way to shore up the program without making cuts.

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