After leaving the NASI’s 25thannual conference, Medicare and Social Security in a Time of Budget Austerity, I came home to many who were eager to hear of my experience – and I had a lot to share. My family members are not exactly thrilled about my newfound interest in their retirement accounts, Social Security beneficiary status, and their knowledge of the Medicare program’s structure. Despite the whirlwind that was my return home, I noticed one constant in my conversations with peers about my newly acquired knowledge of Social Security. People would ask, “Do you think Social Security will be around by the time we retire?” In fact, this concern is commonplace in all generations when talking about Social Security, and directed at experts around the country. Learning from NASI’s conference, I knew that I was now more informed and able to address these questions – and my thinking had been broadened and deepened.
My reply to this question has been, “Social Security will be there… if we want it to be.” Then, I am sure to add, “Retirement may not be the first time we will benefit from this program.”
Social Security does not just provide benefits to the elderly, but it also assists families by providing benefits to those who have lost a breadwinner’s income due to disability or death. Social Security not only acts as a resource for us to reach our economy’s highest potential, but also protects our economy from catastrophic events. In fact, as I was surprised to learn at the conference, Social Security has never mailed a late check, even during events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. What is more, Social Security is powerful, yet simple. As Duncan Black from Media Matters for America noted at the conference, “it’s mindless,” meaning that the program works with only a limited amount of energy, essentially on auto-pilot, while still providing benefits to 58 million Americans.
The dinner keynote reiterated a point that resonated with me: Americans in fact do want Social Security and often make choices to protect it. They depend on it, they expect it, and without it they do not have much to rely on if they retire, become disabled, or die leaving survivors. In truth, far too many Americans have no retirement savings except Social Security. Without the modest help of Social Security benefits, where would Americans be?
While attending the conference, NASI exposed me to not only how Social Security has become a pillar of our economic system but also allowed me to think about why this program is so important. Naturally, I related its importance to my field. As a public health student, I am trained to think on a “population level”. Social Security is unique in that it protects both the individual and the whole. Applying this thought to public health, I can draw a connection between Social Security and many successful public health interventions – an easy example being vaccinations. On an individual level, vaccinations provide quick, easy, and relatively painless lifetime protection against disease. Many people do not remember or realize they were vaccinated as children and virtually no one thinks about their immunity on a daily basis. It’s a health benefit that often goes unnoticed, because it is simple and it works over a long period of time. On a national level, vaccinations provide safe, effective, and inexpensive immunity to entire communities and lower the cost of treating the diseases they prevent. Social Security performs similarly. With a little organization, it easily protects an individual or family from loss of income as a result of retirement, disability, or death with limited initial costs or upkeep expenses. It also effectively protects people from economic hardship – just as a vaccine can protect against a disease outbreak.
My time at the conference has shown me that Social Security is a participatory movement. Again, thinking on the population level, we all must become involved and stay involved. If we, as a society, do not look after and care for these programs many fear that the programs may dissolve and perhaps leave many unfortunate Americans in vulnerable situations. As daunting as the bigger picture may be, discussions at the conference had an undertone of motivation and passion to protect, mend, and adapt Social Security to the needs of the future. As long as we are educated about and care for Social Security, we can make conscious choices about its future so that it will continue to be around for future generations.
Christina is a Master’s in Public Health candidate at Ohio State University where she is currently staffed on a federal Medicaid evaluation grant. Prior to that, she worked to revise regulations as an Environmental Science Intern for the New York Attorney General’s Office. Her interests are in working to bridge the gap between scientific research and healthcare policy and reform. Christina was one of six students and young professionals awarded a scholarship to attend NASI’s 25th annual policy research conference January 31- February 1, 2013, in Washington, DC.