Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

9/11 and the everyday heroes of the Social Security Administration

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Social Security Administration went into action to protect the economic security of thousands of spouses and children.

Within days, Social Security staff were reaching out to grieving spouses to make sure they knew the money their loved one had earned through Social Security would be there for them, and for their children. In at least one case, that helped save a family home.

Within weeks, when the next regularly scheduled batch of checks and electronic funds transfers went out the door, the spouses and children of those workers who perished became one of millions of such beneficiaries across the nation. Many still receive Social Security checks today.

As Nancy Altman points out in the video below, in the wake of the tragedy, “millions of Americans donated to the Red Cross and other charities. But the most immediate, sustained and generous support [for the victims’ families] came from Social Security.”


This is the beauty of a program that has protected the income not just of retirees, but widowed spouses, disabled vets, children and many more people across the nation for almost 75 years. Alongside the response of countless others who acted heroically in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, Social Security is also something we can be proud of.

As for the common claim that Social Security is “going broke”: As a percentage of our economic output, Social Security costs will grow only about 1.4% over the next 75 years as our population ages. From about 4.8% of gross domestic product today, costs will peak at 6.2% in 2034, before leveling at 5.8% for 2050 and several decades after. Such changes are commonplace in the federal budget.

If Social Security requires additional funds, removing the cap on taxable earnings can easily accommodate. In 2009, workers pay into Social Security only on earnings under $106,800. Applying Social Security taxes to all earnings – as we already do for Medicare – would afford more generous benefits for those who most need them.

Social Security is far more than a retirement program. It is the bedrock of economic security for millions of children and parents, as well as working and retired Americans. As a nation, we can easily afford Social Security. The Trust fund is secure, and the program is in good shape financially – now and far into the future. But we can improve on Social Security’s winning formula, by:

Increasing benefits for the lowest income earners. In 2007, 43% of seniors 75 and older lived with incomes under 200% of the poverty level, about $1,702 per month.

Increasing elderly survivors’ benefits. Increasing benefits for a surviving spouse to 75% of the couple’s pre-death benefit, with an income cap on the high income recipients, would help low and moderate-income widows and widowers.

Providing Family Care Credits. Social Security benefits are based on the adjusted average of a worker’s 35 highest-earning years. While men average 44 years in the workforce, women spend far more time providing unpaid family care and average only 32 years. Fewer women would live in poverty in their old age if benefits were adjusted for time spent in family care-giving.

To learn more, check out our latest fact sheet: The Straight Facts on Social Security.

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