March 28th, 2010
08:14 AM ET

Dear President Obama #433: Social insecurity

Reporter's Note: I am beginning to think that retirement, like Brigadoon, is something that exists largely in the fantasy realm. Especially with Social Security unexpectedly running into red ink. That said, in a spirit of optimism, I’m still using regular ink to write my daily letter to the White House.

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

This country has been good to me. My parents were both born into struggling, working class families, which in all fairness would be called poor by most people. Mind you, my folks never called themselves poor because they always knew others who were worse off. And because they had their pride. And I think they felt it was kind of self-indulgent and pointless to sit around whining about such things. To the contrary, they believed that hard work was the great savior of families, and my sister, brother and I were taught from the cradle that labor was a virtue.

I didn’t always feel an eagerness for it. Like most kids I groused about feeding the dog, and mowing the yard, and painting the basement, and digging ditches, and planting shrubs, and building sheds, and on and on.

My father once wanted to put a sump pump drainage pipe beneath the concrete slab of the garage. And his plan to accomplish this, while ingenious, still makes me shake my head in disbelief. We used a 12 pound sledgehammer to drive the pipe sideways beneath that slab; pounding through the black earth gumbo of central Illinois hour after hour, all day long one spring weekend. The further we went, the more the progress slowed, so that each time the hammer slammed against the pipe, it crept only a quarter inch forward… sometimes less.

I felt as if my arms were going to twist from their sockets, my hands would crumble to dust under the shattering vibrations, and I can still hear the ringing in my ears from what must have been thousands of blows on that metal pipe. Finally, very late, with the sun long gone, working by the lights of the pickup truck, we broke through. It worked. I was exhausted, elated, and felt all at once like laughing and crying. I guess I was probably 13 years old.

But as my father told me then, that work was good for me. I have almost without fail had some sort of job ever since. From baling hay for farmers, to tending their hogs, to driving tractors, to stocking grocery shelves, to cashiering at a toy store, to radio station work. I have accepted that one of my duties to my country is to be a productive citizen. It is not glamorous. It is often not fun. But it is essential.

That said, like my parents, I recognize that others face bigger hurdles than I ever have. Poor educations, unstable families, discrimination, crime-riddled neighborhoods; too many problems to list. I’m not sure, had I grown up in their straits, that I would have prospered as I have.

Still, I mention all of this as a preface to saying, when I read the reports about the problems of Social Security this week, I flinched a little. In a nutshell, as you know, the system is now paying out more money than it is taking in, and we have reached that dangerous milestone several years earlier than we expected. Already there is talk about the need for cuts.

Here is what I suspect many middle-age Americans fear: When we reach the point of qualifying for Social Security benefits, which we have paid for all of our lives with hard work, we will be told either that the checks are going to be a lot less than we were promised… or, and perhaps worse…we will face some sort of “needs” test. In other words, we’ll have to justify to some government official why we deserve the money…our money. Those of us who have worked relentlessly, limited our vacations and new cars so we could save money, and truly prepared for old age, will be told, “Congratulations. You have succeeded. You have enough in your own accounts to get by, so we’ll be taking some of the money that would have been in your Social Security check and we’ll be giving it to other people who did not prepare as well for their golden years.”

Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe that is nothing but the conspiratorial meanderings of a mind that will one day descend into dementia. (Like maybe by Wednesday) But with all the emphasis on “need” in your policies, I can understand why a lot of folks are feeling twitchy. Like I said, I was taught from a very young age that hard work brings rewards, and those who work hardest get rewarded most.

I’m a generous person and I take seriously the responsibility of all of us to help out those who struggle. But if you are wondering why some Americans are reacting so nervously to some of your policies, I suspect this is it. They are worried that the emphasis is too much on “need” as a virtue, and not enough on making sure that working, middle class families feel secure in their homes, their jobs, and their lives; without which, they fear, the needs of no one will be met.

Just a thought to ponder on a quiet Sunday, which I think would be nice to keep that way, so if you feel like talking, can we make it tomorrow?



Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Gail Duncan

    Seems like no matter where we cut the cake, somebody is going to suffer.We're trying to repair years of greed, wastefulness, mismanagement...which requires...change. On all levels, mental, physical, spiritual....the way we live...the way we treat our planet and each other...our view on materialism.Looking at things from all angles and viewpoints bar none,

    March 29, 2010 at 2:38 am |
  2. Joanne

    Has the Federal Government "borrowed" funds from Social Security? Honestly, does anyone know?

    March 28, 2010 at 11:31 pm |
  3. Don

    I don't think anyone is immune to the fact that we are facing an uncertain future. Not even our President.
    At the same time. Wishing for the status quo while all the variables
    around us are changing from an individual to global scale is not realistic.
    I sincerely do not believe that all our woes can be attributed to the
    implementation of party ideals. Health reform would not have had been. If the health industry had self-governed themselves better.
    Leadership not only resides in our White House or Congress. I think
    we have overlooked the leadership and values of our power houses elsewhere in our society. In some ways they may have a much greater influence on our society than what federal leadership can do.

    March 28, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  4. jerry

    Your letter does demonstrate the importance of good parenting. What would have been the consequences of not helping dad? I know. You would have gotten a time out right?

    March 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  5. Denise Barlow

    Good morning Tom. Loved the article.

    I keep wondering what's going to happend to people such as myself. Who spent years working hard and now find ourselves with no job, no way to save for our futures. If social securtiy numbers are anywhere near right....I'm in trouble. Because I won't have that back up check (or very little of it) to help me over the humps as I get older. Honestly, the future scares me to death.

    March 28, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  6. giancarloesg66

    I'm reading each of your letters,and they are good,your way to evidence problems is peculiar,i shoul be grateful to you if with problems you could propose some solutions,on your way.

    March 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm |