Family Economic Integrity under the Social Security System


Social Security will always be a goal, never a finished thing, because human aspirations are infinitely expansible-just as human nature is infinitely perfectible. We do almost no single, sensible, and deliberate thing to make family life a success. And still the family survives.It has survived all manner of stupidity. It will survive the application of intelligence.

The Social Security program has been the subject of examination and criticism since its creation in 1935. Most recently, sex-based classifications in the benefit structure have been the focal point of analysis. The benefit structure which is the subject of this article is the major public pension plan known as Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance, or OASDI. OASDI now covers 90% of the work force and provides the major portion of retirement income for most of the aged. These benefits fall into two major categories: primary bene-fits, which are retirement income paid to the covered worker in the form of old-age insurance benefits, and secondary benefits, which are payments made to the worker’s dependents.

The disparity in treatment of the recipients of secondary benefits, wives and husbands, widows and widowers, and mothers and fathers, has been the subject of recent judicial scrutiny. For example, there was previously no “father’s benefit” available to the husband of a deceased worker who was survived by a minor child. In order to receive the husband’s benefit, husbands of covered workers had to meet dependency tests not imposed upon wives similarly situated. Although a number of these disparities have been corrected, the benefit structure continues to reflect a pattern of marital life and family obligations which is no longer typical.

Because benefits to dependents are computed and distributed according to the relationship of the recipient to the covered worker, the system embodies a number of assumptions regarding the roles of men and women within the family. Coverage is extended to the worker based on that worker’s contributions during employment. Additional benefits are allowed according to the number of dependents in the worker’s family. Where there are two workers in the family, benefits are based on the record of the one regarded as the primary income producer. Thus, families with shared income producing arrangements contribute more and receive fewer benefits in proportion to their contributions than families with the identical income produced by one worker. Today, family economic stability is not always dependent upon the efforts of one breadwinner. Part I outlines the benefit system and analyzes its efficacy in light of a family economic structure that has changed considerably since 1935.

Several recent Supreme Court decisions confronting the sex-linked bene-fit structure signal a growing recognition that presumed role behavior within the family is not an appropriate or constitutionally permissible basis for allocating benefits under the program. In addition, these decisions herald an awareness that gender-based discrimination has imperiled family cohesion by devaluing the work of the female partner, both in the home and in the marketplace. Part II discusses these decisions and enunciates the principles which courts utilize for evaluating compulsory, federally-sponsored retirement income programs.

Recently, the family, traditionally viewed as a basic and vital unit in society, has been proclaimed an endangered institution.tS Although it might be appropriate for a federally-sponsored and financed income security program to include among its goals strengthening the family, Social Security has not done so. The purpose of the Social Security program has traditionally been viewed as simply income replacement. It has become apparent that complete retirement income security cannot be provided under Social Security. That goal has been shelved, if not abandoned, during the recent legislative effort to protect the solvency of the program. A more attainable goal would be the promotion of family economic stability by the provision of a retirement and disability income support system based on a recognition of the economic interdependence of the family members. The changes in the economy and in the pattern of participation in the labor market by the adult members of the family since 1935 have not been reflected in the benefit system. Part I articulates and examines the values and assumptions underlying the establishment of such a sweeping, intrusive, and expensive governmental income support system. Whether such a federally-sponsored program is desirable will not be discussed.

Social Security will continue to exist and exert a pervasive influence on the retirement planning of most families. If that influence is to be equally beneficial for all workers and their families, benefits must be allocated to the individual family members without discriminating on the basis of the internal financial structure of the family. The work of strengthening and preserving the family is done within the unit. No amount of support from without will be effective if internal arrangements are not respected and the right to privacy in the establishment and modification of those arrangements is not preserved. Acknowledgment of the economic interdependence of the family’s adult members is central to this goal.

Thus, in summary, this article will first briefly examine the original purposes and assumptions underlying the Social Security system. Recent Supreme Court decisions scrutinizing some of the provisions that embody these assumptions will then be discussed. The values emerging from these decisions constitute a new standard for evaluating legislative schemes affecting family economic security. Finally, a legislative proposal for restructuring the SocialSecurity system will be tested for its efficacy in incorporating the new standard.

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