Social security for all — for now

Image: Maureen Herman

America has no fire drill for economic uncertainty. What is going to happen today, April 1st, in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, when everyone's rent, mortgages, and bills are due?

There is no single and immediate template for how to survive a financial crisis in general. People do not know how to act. People are panicking, hoarding, fearful. With good reason. We know what to do during a tornado warning: go to the lowest floor, stay away from windows. Sadly, a new generation knows what to do during a school shooting. There are best practices in place. But not for this.

With no existing and immediate safety net in a nation largely shut down, the reality of the financial brutality of American life for millions is revealing itself. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin stated Sunday that Americans could live on $17 per day. He estimates the one-time $1200 stimulus check will be disbursed “within the next three weeks.”

As someone who currently lives on $1200 per month due to disability, I can tell you that even the seasoned and resourceful poor, like myself, can barely make that work and then only because my landlord is a friend who charges me just $500 per month for an entire house. My employed friends and family with $1500+ rents and mortgages are not going to be OK on $17 per day without losing their homes or their minds. It is all too little, too late.

Meanwhile new applicants for unemployment are finding crashed application portals, confusing qualifiers and exceptions, and even if they are able to apply successfully, it takes about three weeks for cash benefits to arrive. Unemployment benefits vary by state and are normally a fraction of previous earnings. Even with the extra $600 per week from the stimulus package, most Americans will no longer be able to afford their previous life. Which things can they cut? Their car payment? Prescriptions? Internet? Credit card payments? Food? And if they do cut back, how does that impact the industries that provide those services and products? The answer to this crisis within a crisis is not imposed poverty or radical reductions in everyone’s income which would destabilize the economy, it’s making people as whole as possible on a temporary basis.

Everyone is caught in the same traffic jam, each in their own cars, with their own problems, their own lives, worries and dreams. The self-employed lawyer with two kids in college -- who are now home -- is faced with closed courts and no income but the same expenses. The convention hall worker who is suddenly unemployed due to cancellations of large events is faced with a landlord whose only offer of relief is to allow rent to be paid by credit card. The business owner with a shuttered shop is going through the red tape of these supposed small business loans that they don’t qualify for because of archaic rules that are designed to deny. These are real stories.

What do Americans do in the meantime? What do they do next month? There they all are together -- literally stuck in homes they cannot afford without income. Landlords are not going to willingly suspend rent payments. They need their income, too. Cell phone companies are not going to offer free services. Utility companies are not going to willingly forego payment. Some governor’s executive orders to bar electricity disconnections and broaden food stamp access, as much as it’s needed, will only serve as a stop gap measure.

Looking ahead to at least two months of stay at home recommendations and outright orders, it is not enough. Not nearly enough. The “social safety net” is already riddled with holes. Right now, people all around me are suffering, people that are normally doing just fine, or maybe just getting by, but at least somewhat stable. Everyone’s circumstances are unique. State-wide shut-downs were not simultaneously announced with direct cash relief for the obvious fall out. There was no time. Health and safety came first.

But now we have nothing but time on our hands to come up with a solution. If only there was an existing national infrastructure specifically designed to distribute payments almost immediately to every American. Hello, Social Security. An immediate solution to so many people suddenly losing jobs or facing increased expenses due to the pandemic is to utilize Social Security to issue monthly cash benefits to all Americans until this crisis is over. These are our earned savings we pay into with every paycheck in our entire lives. It’s not an entitlement or welfare. It’s money that was saved with a deduction from all our paychecks, put away for us to use when we can’t work anymore due to age or disability. Let it now also be security for when we can’t work due to a global pandemic where entire states and industries are shut down.

It is not a perfect answer -- Social Security would need to be supplementally funded to do this. But the entire mechanism of Social Security is to distribute money to Americans with a Social Security number. That's what it does. The Social Security Act could be amended immediately to fit the current situation and adjusted appropriately for future pandemics or disasters. Cash benefits could be direct-deposited like they do with the majority of present beneficiaries, like clockwork once a month. The system already exists.

For people who don't need the help right now, they can opt out. For those who do need it, benefits advanced now could be deducted from their future Social Security benefits when they retire or become disabled. Or our government could do the right thing and help Americans outright without paying back the benefits from our later benefits. You know, like the way many corporations are being bailed out right now.

I’m not holding my breath with our current congress and the taboo it assigns to direct cash relief, but if everyone 18 years and older with a Social Security number was given the current maximum Social Security benefit of $3700 per month plus dependent benefits until this crisis is over, people could actually get through this. Or something near it at the very least. $2000? All I know is a one-time payment of $1200 ain’t it, chief.

Social Security for All would also include college students who are cruelly cut out of the current stimulus and address the previously unemployed who may not qualify for unemployment. It would also not create needless red tape for the disabled and the elderly, which the current IRS-based stimulus distribution does since most are not required to file taxes. It would also cover immigrants with Social Security numbers who pay into the system to our benefit but are currently not eligible for the stimulus checks.

It should be extended to all Americans regardless of income or employment status. No means testing, no exceptions, everybody gets out of the burning building safely, from the CEO to the janitor. We didn’t cause the pandemic.

We have rent to pay, car payments, prescriptions, groceries, utilities, the list goes on - -every single month. Trust me, people can’t be left to suffer on their own during a pandemic. If I ran the zoo, I would let the workers get the benefit on top of the unemployment they can apply for, because this pandemic is costing everyone more than what they have to pay each month for reasons as different as the obituaries of the growing number of dead.

Humans have come a long way in the realm of labor and income, first through the hunter-gatherer stage and later overcoming the 12 hour work day. Life now is more humane, but not for everyone. Our society rewards work, not existence. Is just surviving day-to-day life our goal as Americans? That’s a really low bar for six million years of human evolution, don’t you think? Social Security For All may not be a perfect or realistic answer, but it is most certainly an option that could stop the inevitable economic mayhem that will ensue as millions of American lives fall even further apart in the coming days and weeks as the death toll greatly surpasses the number we lost on 9/11.

Chance is a strange thing, and when bad things happen to a person, it’s common to assume that person is at fault or maybe deserves what happened to them. The undercurrent is the idea that society is blameless, that the person must have done something to deserve their lot in life. And to the person those things happen to, it can feel that way too. Disaster feels personal instead of random.

But a tornado isn’t personal. It doesn’t target bad people and spare the good ones. Like this pandemic, it sweeps in, rips away our facades, creates chaos in our lives, leaving us to survive the aftermath and put the pieces back together as best we can.

Bad things don’t happen for some mystical reason. Difficulties aren’t “meant to be” if they can be avoided by enlightened and modern laws, the absence of stigmas, and the proper funding of health care and social services in America. Things happen: car accidents, afflictions, botched surgeries, 9/11, tornados--and pandemics. And here we are.

We are not even in the aftermath yet, putting the pieces together as best we can. Will this unite us? Maybe for the first time in a long time, it just might. Neighbors are helping neighbors -- while keeping a safe distance of course. When disaster strikes, it blows the lid off and exposes the economic disparity like a diorama of American life. It reveals the weaknesses of our social services infrastructure. We all need security -- social security -- right now.

So many feel helpless in the mornings as we roll over and scroll the news on our phones. The personal stories of those who know someone with the coronavirus or whose loved one has died are more frequent and there is less humor, fewer funny pets, and redundant smart takes. And then there are the numbers. This morning we had 188,000 cases in the US. I expect the number of dead will be many multiples of those we lost on 9/11 by bedtime. It will get worse and a continuously grieving country need not add daily financial stress to the mix. Social Security for all is the humane and sane thing to get us through this horror. And it’s better than pitchforks in the street which is what I fear we are on the precipice of with sudden forced poverty and uncertainty.

I remember walking past the Armory on Lexington Avenue in the surreal days after 9/11. It was one of the places the bodies were being taken. The brick walls were plastered with photos of the missing, which by then we sadly knew was a hopeful misnomer for the dead. The contrast of the collage of smiling faces with their tragic fate weighed heavy on me. Behind those faces were families, memories and billions of moments that made up entire lives. The dissonance of the smiling dead was jarring and impactful. We will soon see more faces like that. But I saw my country unite from the unspeakable and do extraordinary things. I believe we can do that again.

Maureen Herman, a former musician, is a disabled writer living on Social Security and the author of the forthcoming memoir, Where Was I on Flatiron Books. You can also read her work on Patreon