An Open Letter to President Trump With a Christmas Gift Idea

By Tom Margenau

December 13, 2017 6 min read

Dear Mr. President,

I hear that your presidency is off to a rocky start. That swamp you said you'd drain seems to be getting muddier and murkier. On the other hand, you have appeased your base of government-bashing supporters by ordering federal agencies to slash their funding by 15 percent, including the Social Security Administration. I wrote a column a couple months ago questioning whether that is a good idea for SSA. After all, there are 10,000 people retiring every day and signing up for Social Security. And there are thousands more filing for Social Security disability benefits, and even thousands more filing for survivor benefits.

So with such a growing customer base, do you really think it's a good idea to cut SSA's staff? Let me put this in relatable terms. Let's say your steak business was growing by 15,000 new customers every day. Would you cut funding and staff to all your producers and suppliers? I doubt it. I am pretty sure you would increase the resources. So maybe you should think about doing the same for SSA.

That's why I'm writing you today. I've got an idea that I think will score big points with senior citizens in this country. Think of it as a Christmas present for them. I suggest you recommend that Congress raise the Social Security death benefit from the current $255 limit to something more reasonable — let's say $2,500. To understand where I am coming from with this proposal, here's a little history lesson.

The miserly $255 one-time payment didn't start out as a death benefit — at least not in the context it is thought of today. And it was never meant to be a "burial benefit," as many people call it.

As part of the original Social Security Act passed in 1935, Congress realized that many of the new Social Security taxpayers would die before they ever had a chance to collect benefits. Or they would die without having earned enough "quarters of coverage" to insure survivor benefits for their dependents. So Congress decided to compensate the families of the deceased with some form of reimbursement for the Social Security taxes that they had paid into the system. They set up a one-time benefit they called the "lump-sum death payment" and it was originally intended to reimburse the family with an amount equal to a small percentage of the tax money the deceased had paid into the system.

It was supposed to be a temporary benefit, because Congress knew that as time passed, most workers would be paying a sufficient amount of money into Social Security that they would be insured for retirement or survivor benefits. In other words, when a taxpayer retired, he or she would get checks. Or upon death, the widow or widower (and any minor children) would get monthly survivor benefits. So this lump-sum payout would no longer be needed.

But as often happens with government programs, once you start paying a benefit, it's hard to take it away. (I guess you are learning that the hard way by trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act!) Anyway, back to the Social Security death benefit. Over the years, there have been many proposals to eliminate it. But as miserly as the benefit is, it's a popular feature of the Social Security program. When it's been on the chopping block, AARP and other senior citizen advocacy groups have fought to save it. And politicians soon learned that to tamper with it meant an automatic loss in the next election. So the "temporary benefit" never went away.

But there have been some relatively minor adjustments to the original law. In 1954, they capped the benefit at $255 — and it's remained at that level since. And in 1983, when President Reagan and Congress were looking for ways to save money in the Social Security system, they restricted the payment of the one-time death benefit to a spouse, and only if she was living with the deceased at the time of death.

And that's where we are today. We have an essentially meaningless "death benefit" paid only to a widow or widower. Perhaps 50 years ago, $255 paid the cost of a funeral. Today, it barely covers the price of the flowers.

On the one hand, if you were looking for a federal benefit to get rid of, then I think you should simply eliminate it.

On the other hand, if you wanted to do something that the vast majority of Americans would like, then propose raising the death benefit to something meaningful and useful — like $2,500. And let's pay it to any surviving family member who is the executor of the estate (not just to widows or widowers).

Obviously, increasing the death benefit will cost the government more money. But here is an idea to help pay for it. Just lop an inch or two off the top of that border wall you want to build. I think that should more than cover the costs of helping millions of Americans in a time of need. And your wall will still be high enough to keep "those people" out of the country.

Oh, and I went to the trouble of writing a tweet you can send out when you do this: "Government bad. But Soc Sec good. I luv old people. Except Hillary. So sad when grandma dies. But good news! I'll give you $2500. MAGA!"

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] 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

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