Bruell column: Scrooges, heroes, and Social Security

Debbie Bruell

The holiday season is filled with heartwarming stories, such as stingy Ebeneezer Scrooge discovering the joy of being generous and the greedy Grinch’s heart growing larger than he ever imagined possible. I want to share another heartwarming story: one about how Americans came to see that our government could have a big, caring heart as well — the story of Social Security.

It begins with Ms. Frances Perkins, senior class president of Mount Holyoke College in 1902. In her final semester, she visited a nearby mill as part of an economics course. She was so horrified by the conditions there that she decided to devote her life to fighting for workers’ rights. At that time, factory workers earned meager pay for doing back-breaking work often 12 hours a day; children as young as five years old worked in factories and sweatshops; safety regulations were essentially non-existent. 

In 1911, Perkins witnessed a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 146 workers, mostly young women and girls. There were no fire escapes; stairwell and exit doors were kept locked as a way to control the workers. After watching helplessly as women leapt to their deaths from windows up to 10 stories high, Perkins decided she needed to shift from working with voluntary organizations to working in government in order to enact significant change as quickly as possible. 

She went on to hold various positions in the New York state government and was instrumental in passing a law that capped the work week to “just” 54 hours.

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) selected Perkins as his Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet. FDR supported the long list of labor reforms Perkins planned to fight for, including Social Security.

Her efforts were boosted by California physician Dr. Francis Townsend. After seeing two old women dressed in once-nice, now-tattered clothes, picking through his garbage cans looking for food, Townsend began advocating for a government-run old-age pension system. He inspired people across the country to form thousands of clubs that pressured Congress to form such a system. In 1936, Roosevelt finally garnered the support he needed to pass the Social Security Act, designed in large part by Perkins.

For 87 years, Social Security has helped ensure that millions of older and disabled Americans have food on their tables and a roof over their heads. In 2021, 65 million Americans received Social Security benefits each month–after having paid into the program their entire working lives.

The majority of Republicans voted against Social Security in 1936 and Republicans have continuously tried to weaken it since its creation. Just last month South Dakota Senator John Thune, the second highest ranking Republican in the Senate, announced that with Republicans in control of the House in 2023, they plan to force cuts in Social Security. Thune echoed the tired refrain that slashing benefits is necessary to reduce the national deficit.

Ironically, it’s the Republican approach of cutting taxes for the richest individuals and corporations that increases the national deficit. For the past 40 years, the deficit has increased during Republican presidencies and decreased during Democratic leadership. The Democratic approach of funding social programs — including job training for the unemployed, healthcare for the sick, and Social Security and Medicare for older and disabled Americans — increases consumer spending, stimulates the economy, and decreases the deficit.

If they were truly concerned about reducing the deficit, Republicans would address the billions of dollars in tax breaks and government subsidies given to agricultural conglomerates, pharmaceutical giants, and other ultra-wealthy corporations. These handouts add up to much more than government expenditures on social programs, and they ensure the richest corporations get richer at the taxpayer’s expense. 

Republicans are silent when it comes to corporate welfare because the same ultra-wealthy individuals that benefit from these tax breaks and subsidies also write enormous checks to these politicians’ election campaigns. Like Scrooge and the Grinch in their worst moments, these Republican leaders prioritize money over people; personal gain over caring for others. 

Proposals to steadily raise the eligibility age of Social Security, privatize the program, and require congressional approval every five years, are all Republican measures that would significantly reduce Social Security benefits or put the very existence of Social Security at risk.  Medicare is similarly on their chopping block.

We pay into Social Security beginning with our very first paychecks and count on those benefits being there when we reach retirement age. Reducing or removing the guarantee of Social Security benefits is a heartless move.

We can create a happy ending to this story by taking inspiration from heroes like Frances Perkins and demanding that our government put our interests over those of the ultra-wealthy and fully fund programs like Social Security to create communities where we all can thrive. 

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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