On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. Today, Social Security continues as a bedrock program that provides millions of older adults with the income they need to meet a basic standard of living and to avoid falling into extreme poverty as they age. Without Social Security, 15.1 million Americans over age 65 would live in poverty. The addition of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as part of the Social Security program has ensured that even more people are protected from the risks of destitution and homelessness if they experience a disability before they reach retirement age, or are not otherwise eligible for significant benefits.

As the number of jobs offering pensions dwindles away, and income and wealth inequality persists, Social Security has become a critical piece of a puzzle many adults rely on in order to plan for retirement and advanced age. And they are right to look to Social Security—97 percent of older adults aged 60-89 either receive or will receive Social Security benefits. While these benefits are relatively modest (the average monthly benefit for retired or disabled workers and widowed spouses is approximately $1,325 a month), Social Security still makes up a majority of most beneficiaries’ income. Seniors of color—who have lower lifetime earnings and are disproportionately more likely to lack pensions or other major sources of wealth—especially depend on Social Security as they age. And women, who often outlive their male counterparts, also benefit from having guaranteed income over the course of their longer lifespans.

While Social Security has become one of the most important ways that older adults can avoid poverty, it is also in danger of cuts, often disguised as “fixes” necessary to ensure the program’s long-term solvency. These proposals, however they are presented, always lead to cuts in benefits. They include ideas like raising the retirement age, lowering benefits, or limiting cost of living adjustments so that benefits do not rise sufficiently to cover inflation. These proposals thrive on the idea that poverty and disability are an individual problem. In fact, poverty hurts families and communities, and nobody except the very rich is completely safe from poverty as they age. All of the programs that are part of Social Security are part of society’s pact to protect each other—our families, our neighbors, and ourselves—from living in poverty as we age.

Justice in Aging wants to celebrate Social Security’s anniversary by making sure that we can continue to depend on Social Security to raise millions of older adults and their families out of poverty. We will continue to push for legislation to expand Social Security benefits, modernize and improve the Supplemental Security Income program, fully fund the Social Security Administration, and reduce poverty among older adults. Happy Birthday, Social Security.

About Tracey Gronniger

Tracey Gronniger is the Directing Attorney for Justice in Aging’s Economic Security team and is based in the Washington, DC office.