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December 21, 2014

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WHERE I STAND:

One short trip will make you grateful — and fearful

Social Security can make one very insecure. Let me explain.

I have reached that ripe old age when, after so many years that it was far from my mind, I am eligible to receive Social Security benefits.

So I took my ever-young bride with me to the Social Security office so she could remember the answers to my questions, and delved into the world of the welfare state. Myra and I agreed on two things: We were the luckiest people in that large room, and the people assigned to assist us were as polite and knowledgeable and understanding as anyone could hope for.

I got my questions answered in short order and learned the value of waiting a few more years to start getting the money I have earned over decades of work — and hoping to live long enough to enjoy it.

With my personal questions satisfied, we both turned to the larger lesson of the visit. While waiting to be called to a window, we witnessed the sea of humanity that was there seeking help.

We live in a world where most of what we hear argued in Washington is far removed from everyday realities. We hear debates about the effort to extend unemployment insurance to people who have been jobless since the recession, or aid to dependent children which, when discussed in terms of billions of dollars nationwide, misses the importance in the life of a single family at the most granular level. We hear about spousal benefits that make the difference between living on the street or in a home, or payments to children who through no fault of their own just don’t have the wherewithal to buy food or clothing or sustain their most simple needs.

We hear older people talk of needing their Social Security checks to keep the lights on at home or food in the refrigerator.

And although many of us argue about the rightness and wrongness of government assistance for those in need, few of us ever have the opportunity to actually touch someone who is living the nightmare of not having enough. Of anything.

So before you argue the merits of smaller government — code for reducing the money set aside for people in real need — take a trip to the Social Security office.

I know looks can deceive, but I saw no one that day who didn’t appear so obviously in need of the few assistance dollars they would get from their visit to the office. Young, old, sick, challenged and generally lost and silent in our great society, they filled the room and waited for someone to help.

I walked into that office secure in my belief that life was getting better, but left feeling insecure about the futures of so many of those people.

If we are a country that can too-easily make decisions that adversely affect the lives of our most needy citizens, then we are a country whose commitment to the social contract is questionable and our security is anything but socially motivated.

Take a short trip to a Social Security office. It will not only open your eyes, but I hope it will open your hearts as well.

You will be thankful — on so many levels — that you did.

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