By Julia Castellano-Hoyt
SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Frank Kormos remembers the dusty cemeteries of rural North Texas where he helped lay to rest poverty-stricken seniors during the Great Depression.
“Before Social Security, there were people starving and they hardly had any place to live,” said Kormos. “They didn’t have retirement. That just didn’t exist. And when these folks passed, we would just go and dig graves for them in humble country cemeteries.”
Raised on small farms, Kormos, now 99 and living in Dallas, is a retired automotive engine expert, as well as a veteran of the U.S. Army and Army Reserves. The long-time volunteer for AARP Texas started collecting Social Security a quarter-century ago. He sees the program as far more than a safety net for people to retire with dignity and security.
“It’s the best thing we ever did in this country,” he said. “Social Security is the greatest thing that could have ever happened.”
August 14 is the 79th anniversary of Social Security, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law to protect ordinary Americans “against the loss of a job and poverty-ridden old age.” In Texas today, 3.6 million, or one of seven residents, receive Social Security, including 88 percent of all Texans over the age of 65.
Texans earn their benefits through a lifetime of hard work. As a result, it insures families against the loss of income caused by retirement, disability, or death.
Like Frank Kormos, I also grew up in rural Texas. Raised in the small town of Poth, outside San Antonio, I had five brothers and two sisters whom my father supported until he died of lung cancer. After his death, our family members took jobs to support ourselves. It was the survivor benefits offered to my mother by Social Security that kept us from being destitute.
But my plight is hardly unique. Each year, Social Security lifts 789,000 Texan retirees from poverty. Nearly 41 percent of Texas’ 65-plus population would fall into incomes below poverty if not for Social Security. As such, Social Security is an engine for Texas’ growing economy.
As a vast program often subject to debate over its long-term outlook, misunderstandings exist about Social Security, said AARP Texas volunteer Carla Penny of Austin who previously served on the national AARP Policy Council.
Penny said many younger workers, especially “Millennials” born after the 1980s, fear Social Security may not be available to them or future generations. But she and other experts insist that while steps eventually need to be taken to address the solvency of the program, Social Security is strong overall.
A new Social Security Trustees’ report finds that the combined Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance Trust Fund can pay full retirement, survivor and disability benefits for approximately two more decades, and about 75 percent of benefits beyond that time for at least several generations more. In response to the July 28 report, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond says what ought to happen now is “an honest, open, national discussion about the value of Social Security and its importance to millions of retired workers, spouses, children, veterans, and persons with disabilities.”
Penny, of Austin, agrees, and she said there are probably a dozen or more ways Social Security could be strengthened. Delaying discussion in Washington, if not also action, she said, will likely only result in the need for more drastic remedies.
When it comes to the importance of Social Security, there’s strong advocacy in Houston from Ronnie McNab. He’s 50 and a new AARP member. He works part-time at a food pantry and is unable to keep longer hours due to health conditions following an accident that hospitalized him for six weeks with a coma and memory loss. He collects Social Security disability benefits.
“If I wasn’t on Social Security, no kidding, I would have to live out on the streets,” he said. “For me, it’s definitely necessary. I’m making it because Social Security is part of the mix.”
Julia Castellano-Hoyt is a volunteer with the AARP Texas Executive Council. She is retired from the City of San Antonio where she was the first Hispanic woman to serve as an assistant to the mayor and the first Hispanic social services administrator. She also worked as a teacher and served on the Bexar County Welfare Board. She also served in the military as a member of the Women’s Army Corps.
AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, with a membership of nearly 38 million, including more than 2.2 million Texans.