McCallum: Historic Investment

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(HOST) The current debate about the future of Social Security has
reminded commentator Mary McCallum of how one Vermonter achieved
national fame – and a truly historic rate of return on an investment.

Ida Mae Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont stepped from obscurity into the
national spotlight in 1940, but it wasn’t because of anything she set
out to accomplish when she left the farm on the outskirts of town.

became an American icon at age 66 when she got her first Social
Security check in the mail on January 31, 1940. In fact, it was the
first monthly retirement benefit check issued by FDR’s newly created
Social Security Administration, and it carried the number 000-00-001. It
was made out for $22.54.

While she had contributed a mere
$22.00 in Social Security taxes to the new system when she retired from
her job as a legal secretary in 1939, Ida received regular monthly
payments for the rest of her life. And here is the kicker. Ida Fuller
lived to the ripe age of one hundred.

After collecting for
thirty-four years, her final check in 1975 was $109.20. Ida’s early
payroll contribution of $22.00 netted her a total of nearly twenty-three
thousand dollars in monthly checks.

In Vermont, there are more
than 88,000 beneficiaries of Social Security over 65. For the majority
of Americans who collect it, Social Security provides half or more of
their total income. How remarkable, considering that Alf Landon, FDR’s
Republican opponent in the 1936 presidential campaign called Social
Security "unworkable" and "a hoax."

Years later, Michigan
congressman Sandy Levin described Social Security as the most effective
anti-poverty program for older Americans. In terms of dollars spent, the
law signed in 1935 is now the largest government program in the world.
More than 50,000 Americans collected the first year, a number that has
swelled to more than 50 million.

In a 2010 Gallup poll, 77% of
Americans responded that spending on major entitlement programs like
Social Security and Medicare will cause grave economic problems. But in
the same poll, most responded that they don’t want benefits cut or taxes
raised to pay for them, while voices on the Right call for

In a stunning turnaround, AARP announced recently
that it would consider raising the retirement age, cutting benefits or
increasing employee contributions in order to save Social Security.

Fuller led a long and rather uncomplicated life in the same house on
Ludlow’s Main Street for more than ninety years. A dyed-in-the-wool
Republican, she never voted for the man responsible for the retirement
income that arrived in her mailbox every month.

And she could
not have dreamed how the Social Security check that launched her into
fame would evolve into the biggest, most necessary and perhaps most
contentious program in American history.

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