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Benefit cuts rare

In last week's column, I presented a brief history of Social Security by highlighting the major changes to the program brought about by annual amendments to the original Social Security law. Sometimes it was a dramatic change, such as the addition of the disability program in 1956. But most times, Social Security amendments introduce relatively modest reforms, such as the 1977 amendments that lowered the duration of marriage requirement for divorced women from 20 years to ten years.

But the point I am getting at in today's column is that almost without fail, every amendment to the original Social Security law expanded or increased outlays, or liberalized the rules allowing more folks to qualify for the program's various benefits.

What struck me is that in the almost 80 year history of the program, I can think of less than a half dozen times when Social Security benefits were actually reduced. Here is a brief overview of the Social Security cuts that have been made over the years.

Student benefits

Since the very earliest days of Social Security, the dependent minor children of a retired or deceased parent, and since the mid 1950s, the dependent minor children of a disabled parent, were eligible for monthly benefits on the parent's Social Security record.

Those benefits were paid until the child turned 18, but could continue beyond age 18 in two circumstances: 1) if the child was disabled, in which case they could continue for the rest of the child's life, even into their adult years; and 2) if the child was still in school, in which case they would continue until age 22.

In 1981, Congress decided to eliminate benefits to students over age 18. They reasoned that because so many other forms of government loans and grants were available to students, there was no need to further subsidize higher education through the Social Security program.

Mother's benefits curtailed

Congress was looking for other ways to trim Social Security outlays in 1981, and widowed mothers and dependent wives/mothers of retired or disabled husbands with minor children ended up in their crosshairs.

For decades, the law had prescribed that wives and widows of any age with young children in their care could receive monthly benefits (in addition to the benefits paid to their kids) as long as at least one of their children was eligible for benefits. But in 1981, they changed to law to say that benefits to the mother would end when the youngest child turned 16. They figured that once all the children were over age 16, the mother ought to be able to work, if necessary, to help support her family.

(By the way, although these situations rarely occur, the same benefits, and the same cutbacks, also applied to widowed fathers and dependent stay-at-home husbands with minor children.)

Death benefit restrictions

In the early days of Social Security, Congress offered a one-time death benefit to the family members of a taxpayer who died before having a chance to collect Social Security benefits. Over the years, this partial refund of Social Security taxes morphed into an official Social Security death benefit payable to the family members of anyone who died, even if he or she had been a Social Security beneficiary.

Most people mistakenly referred to the one-time payment as a "burial benefit." It never was meant to be that, especially considering that it was capped at $255 many years ago. As anyone who has ever planned a funeral knows, $255 would barely cover the cost of flowers, let alone all the other burial or cremation costs.

Anyway, in yet another attempt to curtail Social Security expenditures, Congress in 1981 decided that the death benefit should be paid only to a widow or widower who was living with the deceased at the time of death or to any minor children.

Benefits to prisoners suspended

Prior to 1992, it was assumed that people getting Social Security had earned their benefits, so they were legally due their Social Security checks no matter where they lived. But in the early 1990s, Congress came under intense pressure to suspend monthly benefits to anyone in jail or prison. People felt that since prisoners were already getting their room and board paid for by the taxpayers, they didn't need taxpayer-funded Social Security checks.

Drug addicts and alcoholics

There was a rash of news stories in the mid 1990s highlighting certain disabled people who were allegedly spending the proceeds of their Social Security disability checks on drugs and alcohol. Knuckling under the pressure to do something about this, Congress eventually passed a law that essentially denied such benefits to anyone whose only disabling condition was drug addiction or alcoholism. The law was largely pointless though, because most of these folks have other conditions that qualified for disability. For example, a hard-core alcoholic probably had some kind of kidney or liver damage, and that impairment keeps the disability checks rolling in.