Honoring the man who saved Social Security

Robert M. Ball was a quiet champion of our most successful social program

February 03, 2011|By Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson

Most Americans would not know the name Robert M. Ball, but all owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Starting with Social Security just four years after its enactment, he spent the next seven decades improving and defending the most successful and popular program in the nation's history. Friday, a building on the Woodlawn campus of the Social Security Administration will be dedicated to him, just over three years after his death at age 93.

Mr. Ball was a giant. The longest-serving commissioner in the history of the program, he was instrumental in Congress' enactment of the Disability Insurance program, Medicare, and the automatic inflation protection that beneficiaries enjoy, among many other achievements. Moreover, historians credit him with helping to save Social Security at least four times. The first when he was in his 30s and the program was withering away, in danger of being replaced by welfare. The last when he was in his 90s, and he was Grand Central Station in the effort to derail President George W. Bush's plan to partially privatize the program.

A modest man, Mr. Ball would have been the first to say that today's naming is not just about him. The honor extends to the tens of thousands of civil servants, past and present, committed to providing excellent service to the public. It extends to politicians, past and present, who forged, defended and improved this great institution that uses government to provide dignified protection against what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called "the vicissitudes of life." It reflects the wisdom of other historical figures who, like FDR's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, believed "a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life."

Mr. Ball, although an optimist, was dismayed at the tone and misinformation swirling around today's debate. Recognizing that, in addition to tangible cash benefits, Social Security is designed to provide the intangible benefit of peace of mind, he wanted younger workers to be reassured that, like their parents and grandparents, they would receive the benefits they had earned. In the past, a congressman who openly advocated privatizing Social Security and "voucherizing" Medicare would not have won re-election, much less become the powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee, as Rep. Paul Ryan has.

The dedication comes at a time when politicians seemed to be inching toward a deal to unravel the program's great protections. While looking forward to the dedication, we had over the last few months a sense of irony that this event was occurring at a time when the program was in more jeopardy than any other time.

But then, the clouds started to open in the last week in January. On "Meet the Press," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid strenuously defended Social Security. Two days later, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama expressed his commitment "to strengthen Social Security for future generations." And perhaps most importantly, six senators formed the Defend Social Security Caucus and went before the press to do just that, in a vigorous presentation that could have been scripted by Bob Ball himself.

Mr. Ball would have wanted today's dedication to serve a larger purpose. He was devoted to improving and defending Social Security nearly to his last breath. Shortly before he died, he penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post, forcefully arguing that Social Security's projected shortfall, manageable in size and still decades away, should be solved without cutting benefits or increasing its retirement age (already increasing to 67 under current law).

It seems fitting that today's event should serve not just as a dedication of a building but as a living memorial, in the hope that all of us will continue Mr. Ball's life work to strengthen and defend Social Security. It's a legacy that our leaders and our generation should proudly pass along to future generations.

Nancy Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security, and Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University, are co-directors of Social Security Works (www.socialsecurity-works.org) and co-chair the Strengthen Social Security Campaign (www.strengthensocialsecurity.org ) E-mail: naltman@socialsecurity-works.com and erkingso@syr.edu.

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