Happy FRA-day!

Another milestone. Today I celebrate more than a birthday — it’s my FRA-day, the day I reach “full retirement age (FRA)” per the rules of the Social Security system. FRA (for those not yet enmeshed in the Social Security tangle) is the mid point between when I could have begun collecting Social Security “benefits,” and when I can no longer postpone receiving those benefits. Who knew the day did more than mark “another year older?” Were I to retire on FRA day, I would receive the “full” portion of Social Security income I am entitled to by virtue of having earned sufficient credits to be initiated into the Social Security system. I’ve worked long enough to meet the requirements for receiving a monthly Social Security deposit in my bank account. (Almost wrote “monthly check,” but checks are obsolete and no longer available to new retirees.)

FRA-day has got me thinking about the words “Social” and “Security” (though I am not yet ready to tackle the policies that make up Social Security—that task is too daunting for a FRA-day). Those words carry lots of baggage. Many of us, of course, depend on or will come to depend on the monthly payments from SSA to provide the financial “security” that retirement planners urge us to calculate. One of them even calls Social Security a simple immediate annuity I’ve been building all along (and ignorant all along about what a simple annuity can do for retirement planning — gamble that my life will outlast the years of the annuity so that I make a profit on the investment?). In this fiscal and political climate my investment in Social Security seems about as secure as any other annnuity I would purchase from an insurance company with the potential to go belly-up at any time. Then too, the chapters in those financial planning books also has me looking at Social Security “benefits” as the interest owed me on the long-term loan of my work. Now, however, as repayment loams just ahead, I must also worry about default.

It’s easy to forget that “security” is only half the program’s name when I run into Social Security information only in my finances books. But, there’s also the “social” part of the program’s name. I like to think that in the 1930s, when the Social Security Act was passed in the midst of the Great Depression, Social Security was an acknowledgement that no matter how old, each of us is entitled to a place in the “social.” Like compulsory public education, Social Security is, or rather should be, a marker of and a commitment to inclusion. Its “benefits” promise that “risk” can be mitigated if shared by everyone. I want to believe this about the origins of Social Security, but then again, perhaps my lens is tinted/tainted by the promise of a FRA-day celebration. The historian must investigate further.

These FRA-day musings about “social” and “security” bring to mind a story I read a few months ago (by flashlight during a power outage, no less): Two Old Women, “an Alaskan legend” put into print by Velma Wallis.* Wallis calls it a tale of “betrayal, courage, and survival.” For me it is a story of “betrayal, survival, and redemption.” (Perhaps more a fairy tale than a legend?)

Betrayal, when the people, facing a long winter with supplies that would not sustain everyone, chose to leave behind, cast out of the community, two old women. The women seemed to contribute little and only drained the scanty stores that had to see the young and healthy through to the following year. The people moved on in search of sustenance; all knew the decision meant the women would die, but the choice was a social Darwinist one – kill or be killed.

It is a story of courage and survival, as the two fought their way through the winter, relying on the skills of a lifetime to build shelter and trap food. By relying on each other the women survived, and prospered. Over the summer months they laid in a store of supplies that would have seen them easily through the next winter.

The story does not stop there, however. The people who cast them out return the following year, again in dire straits. The old women share their larder. The lesson of mutuality is learned and as the story draws to a close, the elderly women, now saviors of the people, are reintegrated into the community, never again to be tossed aside as threats to the survival of all. Redemption, as the people learn an important lesson — everyone benefits if all are valued and cared for.

Retirement, 21st century style, is also a casting out, sugar coated (fur-lined?) for those with healthy pensions, lined with SS benefits for those without, but a casting out nonetheless. If we look we can see courage and survival among the old women all around. But I wonder when, or how, or even if the people, the children, will get to redemption. What must change for the old women to be readmitted to the tribe?

It’s my FRA-day. I think I will bake a chocolate cake, using the skills of a lifetime, then I will share it with my people. Or, I could just ignore FRA-day and attend yet another job-related summer meeting. Security through the Social or Social through Security?

*Velma Wallis, Two Old Women; An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994).

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