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Russell Baker and Me

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I just finished reading (or actually re-reading) Russell Baker's memoir, "Growing Up." For those of you who don't know him, Russell Baker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who worked for many years as a columnist for the New York Times. He and I have several things in common.

No, this little column of mine has never won a Pulitzer Prize. And the closest I've ever come to writing for the New York Times is scribbling in the answers (well, at least some of them) each Sunday in their ubiquitous crossword puzzle.

Instead, what Russell Baker and I have in common is a similar family history — just one generation apart.

Baker was born in 1925. I was born in 1949. He had two sisters. I had two brothers and one sister. His parents were poor. My parents were poor. His father died when Russell was just a young boy. My father died when I was just a young boy. His mother struggled to make ends meet, taking on any job to help pay the rent and put food on the table. My mother struggled to make ends meet, taking on any job to help pay the rent and put food on the table.

In his memoir, Baker tells the heart-wrenching story of how his mother had to make a decision no parent should ever have to make. She had to decide which one of her three children to give up after her husband died — because she realized she was never going to have enough money to raise all three kids. She eventually decided to put the baby, Audrey, up for adoption. Baker vividly describes the poignant and heartbreaking scene when he watched a car pull up to their apartment, saw some people get out, listened to them as they exchanged a few pleasantries with his mother, and then cried as they took little Audrey away forever.

And this is where our life stories become different. For you see, my mother never had to decide which of her children to give up for adoption. She was able to keep her family together. It wasn't because my dad left behind a pension or a big life insurance policy. It wasn't because friends or relatives came to our aid. It was all because of Social Security.

Russell Baker's father died in 1930, just five years before the Social Security Act was passed. When my dad died, he had been paying into the Social Security system for 20 years or so. It was enough time to build up a small account so that my mother received monthly checks for all four of her children. To be sure, those checks weren't much. But they were enough to supplement the money she was making from her job to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. And, thankfully, it was enough to keep us all together.

Survivor benefits for children are a big part of the Social Security program that people generally don't think about. Currently, there are 1.3 million boys and girls getting a monthly check from Social Security because their mother or father has died. They each get an average of $796 per month.

This is something I'm always reminding my own kids about, both of whom have their own children now. My son and daughter are 30-somethings. And like most people their age, they mutter a little expletive every time they look at their paystubs and see the "Social Security Tax" deduction. Also, like most people their age, they wonder if Social Security will be there when they need it. That's why I ask them: "When will you need it?" I remind them that their grandmother needed it when she was in her early 40s. And their father needed it when he was just 8 years old!

One more point about the "Will it be there when I need it?" issue. Whenever young people ask me that, I tell them they are asking the wrong question. The real question is "How will Social Security change?" Social Security isn't going away. But over the next decade or so, the program will change, just as it has changed many times during the past 80 years. But I can assure you that no matter what happens, benefits to the surviving children of deceased workers will always be a core part of our Social Security system.

Q: Can you tell me what FICA is? I am 29 years old. I hear my dad always talking about FICA when he is referring to Social Security taxes. When I look at my paystub, I don't see FICA. I see Social Security tax.

A: FICA is an old term that is slowly dying away. In fact, it might already be dead, except in the minds of old folks like your dad.

FICA stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act. It's the law that authorized payroll deductions to cover taxes owed for Social Security and, eventually, Medicare. So for decades people who looked at their payroll stubs and W-2 forms saw a box labeled FICA with the combined deductions for those two big government programs. They were lumped together because the taxes for each program were withheld from the same amount of earnings.

But then, in the 1990s, Congress eliminated the maximum wage base for the Medicare tax, while maintaining it for the Social Security tax. It meant that people earning over that wage base (currently $117,000), would continue to pay Medicare taxes but would no longer have to pay Social Security taxes. For that reason, the tax deductions could no longer be combined in one box under the FICA heading. So employers started showing the Social Security and Medicare deductions in separate boxes labeled "Social Security Tax" and "Medicare Tax."

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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