Monday, October 20, 2014

Being Frank About Social Security

Everybody works at something. 
Often, we hear about those who are taking advantage of the system, getting what they shouldn't get from our hard-earned tax dollars. 
They work at it as surely as when you and I go to our jobs. 
But let's not confuse people who use the system with those who abuse the system. 
Not long ago I was walking into The Plant shortly before the shift began. 
I greeted a woman who arrived at the door the same time I did. 
"It would be a better day if we didn't have to be here," she growled. 
I understood where she was coming from. It was a beautiful fall day and in a perfect world I would have been out enjoying myself. 
But we both had jobs to do and paychecks to earn. 
That brief exchange got me thinking. 
What about the people who work hard at cheating the entitlement programs and expect someone else to take care of them. Doesn't that make you angry? 
Then I began thinking about Social Security and all the other entitlement programs provided to care for Americans. 
Are the programs all bad? Apparently not. Many people not only use them but nothing is being done to eliminate them. 
I am reminded of a man I met named Ben. 
Ben was a prominent businessman in his community in the late 1920s. He owned a general store and managed a grain elevator located on the train line that ran through his rural community. He also rented a farm which he operated. 
As I say, he was a prominent businessman. Everyone knew him to be a God-fearing man who had helped to start and build the local church in their small community. Mothers knew that he would let them run a tab at the general store if they needed food for their families and money was tight. 
Decades later, a minister told me about the Sunday he filled in at the little country church and Ben gave him a ride in an automobile. 
"Ben and his wife went into the bedroom and came out dressed for the trip," the preacher said. "They had on long coats and wore gloves and hats." 
Those were the good times for Ben and his family that included two boys and two girls. 
Then the stock market crashed and Ben lost it all. 
Years later, his youngest daughter told me about the day she burned dozens of IOUs that were never paid by people who came to the store for food. 
Why did he allow them to have such credit? 
"I couldn't stand to see a child go without milk," Ben told his daughter. 
But Ben owed money, too. For decades after the stock market crash he worked at a factory to pay off his debts. He finally quit the factory when he was 70 but he would have had no place to live if not for the gift of a home from the husband of his older daughter. 
Ben lived in that house during the summer and with his children during the winter for the next several decades. His wife had died during the Depression and eventually all four of his children married and had families of their own. 
After he turned 70, Ben's only source of income was Social Security. He lived on that and stayed in the house provided by his son-in-law. 
The house was heated by a single oil stove and had no indoor bathroom until the 1960s when a bedroom was converted into a bathroom with stool and tub. 
He had no TV or books. A table top radio provided entertainment and news from Arthur Godfrey and Garry Moore and WLS before that station changed to a rock and roll format. 
The first time his youngest grandson went to visit, the child looked at the radio and asked, "Where's the picture?"
Was Ben a success or a failure? I believe he was a great success for he imparted important values to his children and to all who knew him. 
"You don't have to pay off those business debts, Ben," people told him but he didn't listen. 
Ben -- Benjamin Franklin Zellers -- was my grandfather. 
Did he use the Social Security program? Sure! Did he abuse it? Never, for it was established to help people just like him. 
We hear stories about many people who abuse the system but we have to understand there are also many who need the so-called entitlement programs, at least temporarily. In our minds we have to separate those who use the system from those who abuse the system.

Frank Phillips, who received his middle name from his grandfathers Benjamin Franklin Zellers and Clair Franklin Phillips, is a syndicated columnist and author. His blog can be found at and he can be contacted at