My statement from Social Security shows I have had taxable income in every year since 1966. That first year was a modest beginning. I earned $628 working after school in a very small, family-owned manufacturing company, about 20 blocks from my parent’s home. I went to school with the daughter of the owner. My closest high school friends worked there too. I think I was paid something like $1.25 an hour. Viewed from a considerable distance, I’m not sure Tony got his money’s worth. We all treated it casually, more of a daily social scene, a chance to pal around after school, talk about girls and cars, and maybe get out the odd bit of production.
Whether we took our work seriously or not, it was my first taste of the kind of freedom that comes with an income. The short drive to the bank Friday after five o’clock was liberating. Looking at the numbers on that weekly check astounded me. Up to that point in my young life, I had never commanded sums that large. Like most kids, my parents paid for what I needed. What I was given by way of allowance was little; it never bought enough of the motors, tires and other bits for my model race cars. But the amounts on my weekly after-school paycheck would buy far more than parts for toy cars; this was real-car money. There was an independence that came with standing in the teller line at the bank, with other guys, older than me, working stiffs and wives of working stiffs, all with endorsed checks in hand, the tangible results of another workweek, a grown-up feeling, and, for me, maybe just a whiff of pride.
Looking at the figure on the statement, I’m amused; $628 for an entire year. Not enough to purchase the flat-screen television in my living room. The statement from Social Security, contained within a few square inches of paper, dispassionately lists 44 years of uninterrupted income, 44 years of a life. The figures sit there, cold, unappreciative of what lies behind them, unrevealing of the life, of the human represented by these simple statistics.
How did I get from there to here? What happened to that kid holding the check with two figures to the left of the decimal, filled with wonder at the new world which was just opening itself to him?
After high school ended, I continued to work at a short series of manual labor jobs, was even a card-carrying union guy for a time. By the sheerest coincidence, I had read Eric Hoffer, the closest I had ever come to knowing anything about the life of a union man. Hoffer’s book Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, left me with the opinion that it was honorable work, apparently work that left ample time for philosophy and writing. I carried my union card for an amount of time sufficient to inform me, while it worked for Hoffer, it wasn’t the way I wanted to make my way in the world, not as a long-term proposition anyway. As with many kids just out of high school in the 60s, I had no particular model to follow, no plan, at a time when college was not mandatory for any working life, indeed was still the province of those who excelled in school and of families who had the resources for it. There were three options; college if you had the creds and the money, the military if you didn’t or working with your hands for an hourly wage. I had no credentials or money for college and, at the height of the Vietnam war, military was a road to a quick death in Southeast Asia. I selected the third option. I tried things, checked them off my list and went on looking. I still had no particular direction when one found me.
It was a warehouse job, offered as an alternative to what I came looking for. On advice from a friend, I applied for a job on the product assembly floor, using tools, turning wrenches. By the time I got there, it had already been filled. The foreman suggested I talk to the new guy in the next office; Dave offered me a job on the spot, unloading trucks and driving a forklift. In a year or so, that job led to another offer from Dave to move from the warehouse into the office of the purchasing agent. He wanted a junior buyer to help Steve with the ordering of nuts, bolts and other low-value supplies needed to build the products. Office work and business in general had already been checked off my list, but Dave seemed to want me to try it, and it came with a small bump in pay. Against my instincts, I said yes.
I was promoted several times by Dave at that company. It was on-the-job training, augmented by night classes. I eventually took one of those toy associate degrees from a local community college. Like other young men at that time, I built on such opportunities as presented themselves. Over many years, it became a career. My career.
I look back again at the statement sitting on my desk. At the top of the page is printed “Your Earnings Record”, in bold Times New Roman font. Under it, two neat columns, in groups of ten for each decade. The figures reveal a steady ascension of amounts, year-over-year.
The highest of those are shown beside the year 2007, a year in which the Fortune 500 company was not-so-quietly making preparations to be acquired. The turn-around CEO was gone, his work to fix the business metrics and increase shareholder value completed. Long term employee benefit programs were being converted. A relative newcomer with my seven years, there were a few payouts which show themselves in my taxable income for that year. At the time, I hadn’t noticed they amounted to that much.
I should say that none of these are large sums. Through life, I have read salary surveys and mentally fit myself into the framework of those reports. Better than a social worker; far less than an attorney. Less even than some union trades; I’ve seen plumbers salaries in such reports that eclipse mine.
The amounts on my Social Security statement are probably unremarkable. They reflect the truth of risk / reward. I have risked little; my rewards have been commensurate. I played the employment and income game the way I saw my father do it. His experience with the Great Depression and World War II told him that the only sensible path was to find a good job and hang onto it. My version has been little different. I can’t say I have ever accepted risk in exchange for monetary rewards.
On the opposite page is the “Estimated Benefits” section of the statement; my eye always goes to the amount I will receive if I “stop working and start receiving benefits at age 62”, a milestone in my life which now lies only one year ahead.
Then there are other statements. These are the ones which collectively reflect the amounts we have managed to set aside; savings and a couple of tax deferred retirement accounts. Serious efforts with 401k’s and IRA’s began only about fifteen years ago. We’ve done well, I think, everything taken into consideration, but the long days stretching into the future, the ability to contribute 20% of salary to a 401k are now over.
I keep wondering if it will all be enough.
I might enjoy working until 66, “your full retirement age”, as it’s called by the Social Security statement, but I haven’t had a good job in two years. I’ve remained employed, yes, but well off the track I was on when the Fortune 500 was acquired by the larger company that closed our department and released us all into the uncertainty of 2008.
Welcome to the uncertainty of 2011.
Several weeks ago, I saw a position opening that was the closest I’ve seen in the last two years to the contract work I was doing when the F500 sold. I told Jeni it looked like me. Posted by one of the energy and utility companies, I tailored my resume to match and applied online. A friend located a contact person within the hiring department and sent my interest and resume directly to her, with a recommendation as well. A week later, the position disappeared, replaced with a junior position. The only explanation which makes sense is that the position that caught my attention was posted for the mandatory week, before an already-selected internal candidate was promoted into it, leaving a junior position open, vacated by the internal candidate.
That was before the debt ceiling debacle in Congress and before the Dow lost roughly 1400 points between August 2nd and August 10th.
Last month, I watched as 25 ideologue freshmen in the House stood in the way of what has been a housekeeping vote, up until now. Late in the process, I finally learned what Lawrence O’Donnell knew when they were elected last November; that moment is what they were there for. Their objective was not to govern, but to blockade, to advance their spending-cut agenda by holding the debt ceiling hostage. No discussion, no conciliation, no compromise, no concession. They were there without need of reelection in two years. They were there on a one-way mission, to bend, or break if necessary, not only the position of the White House and the Senate but the ability of the Federal government to function financially, to bring the machine to a halt, to cause all of us to accede to their point of view. They are crusaders, doing what they believe must be done for their cause of righteousness.
In the wake of that vote has come the S&P downgrade, attended by a host of negative economic statistics, and the massive losses in the value of equities on Wall Street. And still, the debt ceiling issue, passed by both chambers, will come back again in a matter of months, this time requiring the massive cuts to federal spending the new ideologues demanded as their ransom. No discussion, no news report, no written opinion of these coming cuts fails to mention Medicare and Social Security. To the 25 ideologue freshmen in the House, they are millstones around the neck of this country.
There seems to be something more.
I long ago became clear on the modern roles of the two-party system. I understand that one side believes fervently that government should provide opportunity and support to the populous. While my political sensibilities were formed at a tender age by the Kennedy election and administration, I think it is possible over the ensuing 50 years that government has overextended its liberal roots, beyond basic protections, such as Medicare and Social Security, into other areas of daily life where its influence is as questionable as its results. I understand that the other side believes that the populous is helped most when the influence of government is least, when we are left alone to make our own path. Conservatism, which holds that those who have risked more and have thus reaped rewards, should be allowed to protect them, literally to conserve them, rather than see them redistributed. I don’t entirely disagree.
But the trend for some time seems to be evolving beyond this. It is a trend that seems to be less about conserving, more about denying, not only the questionable liberal programs, but even the basic protections; a message that tells people on the other end of the continuum, if you’re not clever or smart enough to do as we do, to utilize risk to achieve reward, if you’re not bold enough or smart enough, if you didn’t figure out a way to get an education sufficient to permit entry into the workforce at above-average levels, so you could achieve something better, if you haven’t invested wisely, amassing a net worth in seven figures, you’re on your own. If you became a social worker, rather than owner of a business, then figure out how to run your life on a social worker’s salary. We’re not going to compensate you for any public good resulting from low-wage work, like social workers, teachers or postal workers. We’re not going to provide for you, your family or your kids. Not in any way. Those are choices you made. We’re the ones generating the jobs and paying the wages, but we’ll not participate in any more redistribution through the tax system. We don’t need Social Security or Medicare and we’re not paying for yours. We’ve done what we need, to provide for ourselves.
Do it our way or live with the consequences
My statement from Social Security sits here on my desk, beside my keyboard, reflecting an average lifetime of average jobs at average compensation, as well as the required contributions in taxes and to the old-age safety net. In 1966, I had only the vaguest high school social studies knowledge of Social Security. It wasn’t until my Dad retired that it took on any sort of tangible presence. Even then, since money was never discussed in our family, except for the virtue of not spending, it was still a remote concept.
Only when I realized that the last job I thought I’d ever need was not going to get me there, at a company that had been part of this city for 86 years, did I start to think about Medicare and Social Security with any immediacy.
And now I see it for what it was intended.
Medicare, Social Security and our tax deferred savings. That’s it. That’s all I have to work with. There are now those in Washington and across the country who think I deserve only the savings.
If there had been any recovery in employment in the last two years, if the vigor exhibited in corporate earnings and shareholder value and the stock market had spilled over into borrowing, consumer spending, business expansion and the need for more people to return to the workplace, if at any time in the last two years I had seen more that only one position opening that was the equal of my last good job, this would be a different story unfolding. Yes, I’ve benefited by the rally in the market over the last year, and I’m grateful for at least that. But even that changed course in July. As one fund manager was heard to say, after several days of triple-digit declines, “I’m managing risk instead of chasing rewards.”
Well sir, so am I.
There have been moments when I am able to think there still may be options and opportunity ahead. For these moments to come, I must get away from the desk, from the news, from my analysis of this economy, which I study daily to inform my decisions with our investments. I need to get out on my feet for a long walk, maybe sweat a bit or, even better, get in the kayak and feel the rhythm of the paddle in my hands, feel the movement of the water under the hull beneath me. Even listening to music from the earliest days when Jeni and I began what has become a life together, summons in me the hope, the promise, the opportunity I felt then, the expansiveness that came from simply being with her, a sense that all things were possible for us, that life was long, choices unlimited, the future endless. The moments still come, but only occasionally, less defined, more subdued, a somewhat faint version of what they used to be. But time for options and opportunity is shorter for us now than it has ever been.
I endure a job I keep solely for the income, not because I’m unwilling or incapable of doing better, but because there’s been no opportunity to do the work I do well. I wonder how much difference that income can make, a much smaller version than I have had in years past. I wonder if the rally that added a healthy percentage to our investments is over, for the time left that I’m willing to exercise any amount of risk. I wonder if there will be another opportunity like the job at the energy and utility company, which dissolved without even a phone call.
I wonder if the Estimated Benefits on my Social Security statement, our investments and savings will all be enough. And I wonder if it will be there for us.