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McCallum: Historic Investment

07/28/11 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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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.

(MCCALLUM) 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.

Ida 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 privatization.

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.

Ida 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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