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My Mom and the Lady Next Door

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I think it's time to once again share the story of my mom and the lady who lived in the big house directly behind our modest home. I've told this tale before in my column, but it bears repeating. And that story is on my mind because of an incident that happened during a recent speech I gave to a local woman's club. I'm still nursing the wounds of the poisoned darts that lodged in my skin!

I wasn't really the intended victim of those nasty barbs. (And truth be told, they were vocal barbs, not the real thing.) I just got in the way of two women who were yelling at each other, each accusing the other of abusing the Social Security system. One, the most livid, was a woman who worked outside the home most of her life and was getting her own Social Security benefit and nothing from her husband's account. The other was a woman who spent almost her entire adult life as a homemaker. Her husband had died, and she was getting widow's benefits from his Social Security record. Why the working woman was so upset can best be explained by sharing the story of my mother and our neighbor.

I grew up in a small town where you could find rich folks in big houses living very near to poor folks occupying much more modest dwellings. And that was true of our neighborhood. My dad was a janitor struggling to make ends meet. My mother had to work to help pay the rent and keep enough groceries on the table to feed me and my three siblings.

Just behind our house across the alley was a big home owned by the vice president of a local bank. His wife, even though she had a degree in journalism, never worked outside the home once the first of an eventual brood of six children came along.

My brothers and sister and I got along famously with the children of the banker and his wife. We were always playing games, shooting baskets or otherwise just hanging out. On the other hand, our parents rarely spoke. I guess the economic and educational gulf between them was just too great to foster any kind of meaningful relationship.

And that gulf only widened later in life between my mom and the neighbor lady after both of their husbands died. Sadly, most of the friction and resentment came from my mom's side of the alley. And much of it had to do with Social Security.

Because my mom had worked most of her life, she received her own Social Security retirement benefit. The widow's rate she was due on my dad's Social Security account was only slightly higher than her own, so she did get a small bump in her monthly checks from my dad's side of the Social Security ledger.

Across the alley, the neighbor lady received no benefits on her own Social Security account, but she did get a rather substantial widow's benefit from her deceased banker husband.

It was more, actually quite a bit more, than my mother received from her combined accounts.

And this peeved my mother to no end. Sadly, she lived the rest of her life bearing deep resentment — partly to her neighbor, and partly to the Social Security system that allowed what she perceived to be this injustice to happen. I can still hear her griping: "THAT WOMAN never worked a day in her life. And there she is in that big house, getting more money each month from the government than me, a woman who worked hard all her life just trying to make ends meet!" And that's the same sentiment I heard expressed at the speech I gave to the local women's club — a quarter century after my mom's rants followed her to the grave.

I know there is some degree of animosity between women who either choose or have to work outside the home and women who either choose or have to stay home to raise a family. I'm not touching that social issue with a 10-foot pole.

But I can address the Social Security side of the story. I used to ask my mom: "If you think things are unfair, what do you think we should do about it? Should we take widow's benefits away from Mrs. [X] because you don't think she deserves them?" My mother might get a nasty little gleam in her eye with that thought. But she always eventually admitted that the neighbor was due her widow's benefits.

My mom would counter with this: "I think I should get my own full Social Security benefit AND my own full widow's benefit. After all, I worked and paid for my Social Security, and dad worked and paid for his Social Security!" On the surface, it seems like a valid point. In fact, I've heard thousands of working women make the same argument to me over the years.

But here is the flip side of that coin: If working women can get their own retirement benefits and full spousal benefits, then shouldn't working men be offered the same? For example, why can't Warren Buffet get husband's or widower's benefits off his wife's Social Security record to supplement his own?

OK, maybe that's an extreme example. So let's take my neighbor. He and his wife have both worked and they are each getting their own Social Security benefits. Should we pay her, in addition to her own Social Security, a wife's benefit on her husband's record? And then likewise, should we pay him, in addition to his own retirement benefit, a husband's benefit on his wife's account? And after one or the other dies, should the survivor get both full benefits?

The truth is: Social Security spousal and survivor benefits have always been classified as "dependent's" benefits. They are meant to be paid to a lower-earning (or no-earning) spouse who was financially dependent on the higher income spouse. They were never meant to be paid to everyone as some kind of add-on marital bonus to their own Social Security account. The Social Security system would have gone bankrupt decades ago if we were doing that!

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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