There are a number of odd Social Security regulations that pretty clearly were enacted to appease reactionary shitbirds (skewing wealthy and aspirational) who otherwise would go into full revolt and crash the system. Thankfully, there are fewer of these than there were at the system’s inception: Social Security today covers domestic and farm workers, for example, who were deliberately excluded as beneficiaries in order to appease Jim Crow authoritarians and fellow-traveling racists. That said, Social Security remains weirdly conservative. Its retirement pensions for beneficiaries who maintained steady payroll employment histories are moderately progressive, but because its pension benefits are roughly proportional to lifetime payroll deductions and are not subjected to means-testing, it consistently pays the affluent much more generous pensions than it does the poor. It ends up most heavily backstopping those who need the help the least. It provides no exemption for payroll deductions for the lowest earners but a generous exemption for the highest earners, with deduction caps set at slightly over $100,000 in annual earned income. It also exempts all forms of unearned income from deductions, shielding financial instruments that are disproportionately held by the wealthy and commonly used to secure handsome payouts for doing absolutely nothing.
Social Security’s threshold for vesting retirement benefits is conservative to an extreme that has the potential to leave significant contributors to the system with nothing because they failed to contribute in at least ten calendar years. 40 credits are required to vest retirement benefits, and no more than four credits can be earned in a calendar year. This is not a scheme to rob the working poor: a casual part-time worker who has worked every calendar year from 2006 through 2015 can vest a pension with as little as $44,240 in lifetime payroll income. Meanwhile, someone who has worked full-time every year from 2007 through 2015 and gets laid off today may have no vested retirement benefits at all. This is clearly not a function of rock-bottom lifetime contributions, since full-time employment for nine calendar years should yield gross pay of anywhere from about $115,000 at minimum wage to half a million dollars in the middle of the middle class. A physician, attorney, or engineer could finish nine calendar years of work with close to a million dollars in lifetime gross earnings.
The tacit objective here is easy to discern: this ten-year-plus vesting threshold was implemented for the purpose of shaming and punishing the lazy. It doesn’t directly punish laziness, which would be unfeasible and also unconstitutional under any equal protection assessment, but instead a piss-poor proxy whose measurement satisfies only the most pea-brained of minds. Lazy pieces of shit are often able to hold down jobs, especially if they’re well-connected or can settle into a position that normally demands nothing of them but their presence, and the unemployed are often anything but lazy. The amount of actual work I did shot up dramatically after I got fired by the environmental consulting firm and went back to Joe Dirtbag’s vineyard and winery on a casual, seasonal basis. The strenuousness of the work I was doing increased even more so, and the measurable, indisputable productivity of it was indescribably higher than anything I accomplished by doing quarterly ass-covering examinations of monitoring wells at gas stations. The reason I was paid for the consulting work and not for any of the vineyard work I did prior to 2013 is that the consulting firm insisted on paying above-industry-standard salaries, while Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew are chronic excuse-mongering freeloaders who don’t give a shit about Social Security except when it deposits their benefits every month.
The ten-year minimum to vest benefits causes great distress to unemployed youngsters who are paying attention and taking their future and their relationship to the retirement fund seriously. I can’t be the only young person with a short or spotty work history who feels this way. If you haven’t heard anything on this situation from those who have fallen into it, it’s probably because publishers and broadcasters don’t pay us to write or say anything thoughtful about it. It’s much better business to pay some desperate loser or amoral social climber to write lying-ass clickbait or troll jobs on a lowball piece rate.
The psychopaths at the top very much enjoy setting everyone against everyone else. This is why there are so many SEO-turbocharged hot takes in which Millennials and Boomers scream bloody murder at each other, working-class Millennials resentfully accuse their age cohorts from more affluent families of intractable laziness and entitlement, and shitheads of various ages inaccurately accuse trust fund beneficiaries of being too lazy to get jobs.
I’m pretty sure that most trustfunders in fact have jobs, since the affluent have lower unemployment rates than the poor and the truly wealthy can often obtain immediate sinecure placement for any scion who isn’t severely impaired by drugs or mental illness. I’m related to a sibship of five who received distributions from a trust established by their grandfather for several decades; every one of them had a lengthy employment history, including the two black sheep, who were mocked relentlessly by various relatives for being grossly improvident. Portlandia trustfunders are an easily shit-upon minority who represent no one but themselves, and I’m quite sure that the aimlessness and laziness that others perceive in them is often aggravated by factors other than their work ethic: anxiety disorders, major depression, chronic humiliation or gaslighting by more successful relatives (contributing, as anyone who doesn’t have his head up his ass knows, to psychosocial dysfunction), ruined job markets overrun by amorally manipulative cutthroats, etc. We don’t know whether or how often these people would accept immediate, no-questions-asked job placement because hardly anyone offers it. Also, many of the milquetoast-looking hipsters one sees holding down the fort in coffeeshops are using their skinny laptops either to seek or to do online work for pay. On the other hand, if you’re spending your time at Starbucks collecting confirmation bias data for your hot take about how that faggot in the scarf isn’t doing any work, you aren’t doing any work, either.
The unanswerable question that some of us face (probably many more of us than can be found at first glance) is whether we’ll ever vest our retirement benefits. It can be excruciating. I currently have $32,533 in lifetime earned income but only eleven credits. Without the annual credit limit, I could have earned 22 credits in my six months at the environmental consulting firm. Well over half of my payroll income to date has done nothing to vest my pension. It will remain worthless until I have at least seven more calendar years on payroll.
Is it prudent to assume that I’ll achieve that? No. This doesn’t mean that I won’t try; it means that I’m not too goddamn arrogant to assume that I’ll succeed, and that I’m not the kind of rationalizing dipshit who has wet dreams about how the coming collapse of the entire Social Security system will level everyone else down to his own level of insolvency, making prior contributions a sucker’s proposition. These people exist, and they’re some of the most pathetic I’ve ever encountered. It’s foolish to just assume that something will eventually come along; I never fully trust anyone who says such a thing to the failed. I haven’t yet vested my first credit for this calendar year, and that’s with about two hundred hours on payroll, because pretty much all of us come out well behind minimum wage at the blueberry farm. If past is prologue, the future looks like walking death financially.
Or let’s say I get married and stay home to raise and homeschool my children. Spousal benefits don’t vest until ten years of marriage. (The Social Security Administration must have one hell of a crush on the decade.) Will my marriage last ten years? It’s appropriate to hope that it will, but again, it’s grossly imprudent to assume. In this case, separation is irrelevant, but what if I find myself with a wife who’s hellbent on obtaining a divorce decree? It’s possible. Guys find themselves married to crazy, vindictive bitches all the time. I’d be a fool to assume that I’ll have better judgment. Divorce courts do brisk business with men who made exactly this assumption in the heat of passion.
It’s clear that we’re dealing with regulations that have weird ill effects at the margins. I’d be much closer to vesting retirement benefits had I gotten back into the Hersheypark carny pool in 2007 and stayed there through 2013, skipping the consulting job entirely, than I am today from having landed a $41k professional-track job on salary and then lost it. The same lifetime earnings would get me much closer to at least a mess of pottage in retirement income if they had been distributed over seven seasons as a part-time carny than they currently do coming from one season of environmental consulting work.
Social Security is designed to exacerbate existing risks for young people whose job prospects are unpredictable or unstable. Since 2008 there has been a nearly worldwide flood of such young people. Only a tiny, eccentric minority truly wants to end up working for fewer than ten years. Most people who claim that they want to totally slack off are trying to comfort themselves with sour grapes about their own frighteningly bad job prospects. Most of the talk about “funemployment” is bullshit. Unemployment can be a lot of fun for the first few weeks, but beyond that it gets scary as hell. It stops being a vacation and turns into a nightmare, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. For those living paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s a nightmare from day one. Those who are moneyed enough to truly make something out of unemployment, say, by traveling or visiting all the local museums, are generally the same ones who have the personal or family connections to muscle their way to the front of the line for job openings; the most powerful have the juice to command the next available sinecure, and maybe even to tell the employer when the sinecure will be available.
Yes, I’m backstopped against destitution in retirement by the inheritance that I stand to eventually receive from my parents. By my dad’s reckoning, Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew consider this a reason to have a clean conscience about not paying me. This is because they’re pieces of shit who make the most grandiose excuses imaginable for their defrauding the national pension plan out of a combination of indigence and parasitism. Counting on a future inheritance from loved ones is so horrifically crass that I’d probably turn state’s evidence on Joe Dirtbag out of sheer offense if he ever had the gall to suggest to my face that I mellow out and count on that money.
Joe Dirtbag is, in a narrow sense, just a predatory relative with whom I’ve been entangled for half of my adult life. At the same time, he’s a very useful object lesson in predatory employment practices. He operates at the margins, but the margins are exactly where pressure on wages, working conditions, and terms of employment is brought to bear. In times as desperate as the Second Great Depression, bottomfeeders of his caliber gain extra latitude to abuse the help. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been on the receiving end of early-stage feudalism. Joe Dirtbag’s predation isn’t all that different from the predation of Fortune 100 companies that illegally assign unpaid interns to profitable work that serves no training or educational purpose. In each case, shitheads keep committing wage theft because doing so doesn’t get them tied up in civil suits.
Social Security’s vesting rules used to be even worse for marginally attached workers. Until 1978 pensions vested at 40 quarters of coverage, each of which had to be earned in a separate fiscal quarter. So Congress has tweaked improvements that have incrementally restricted Mr. Garrison’s latitude to fuck the carny pool to death. This is cause to be thankful and hopeful. At the same time, no subconstituency gets a thing out of the US federal government without threatening to make heads roll. The AARP is exceptionally adept at reminding Congressmen that they do not have lifetime tenure. It credibly threatens to put forty-year incumbents out on the curb with last week’s trash.
Really, every successful lobby does this. It’s why the LAPD never pulled a 38th Street hell-on-wheels SWAT chimpout on the cokeheads who litter Mulholland Drive. That shit provoked only years-delayed rioting in South Central because no one ghettoside had the juice to have Daryl Gates fired at the next city council meeting. Rough up the wrong hill people and you’ll be in the mayor’s office by the close of business, under orders to commit honorable career seppuku on the spot. On the flip side, the corner of Florence and Normandie only sometimes goes up in flames following egregious police brutality.
We’re as third-world a society as we allow our betters to make us. Mr. Roosevelt put the brakes on the fraud and thievery back in the day. Barack Obama is no FDR, but at least we still have a legacy pension plan from the New Deal that Obama knows better than to directly crapify. And, yes, barring a national governmental collapse of post-Soviet proportions and serious, ongoing difficulties obtaining payroll work, I intend to snuggle up to Mama Sugar’s tits one day and proudly announce that bitch, it’s milk time. Adequate constituent services don’t come to those who wait; they come to those who tell Mama Sugar to gimmedat. Only then do public officials approach their constituents as the boys at Oil Stop approach their customers with pitches for bogus fuel additives: humbly, with a servant’s heart.
Mao was right. Political power has always grown out of the barrel of a gun. The twenties and thirties were full of organized workplace violence, and FDR knew it. That’s why we’re all in the position to aspire to national retirement pensions in the first place. And the Donald, God bless him, says he’s gonna make the pension plan more fabulous than ever.