I first met "Tommy the Cork" 26 years ago; he was 79 years old and I was in my first year in the U.S. Congress. As a student, Thomas Corcoran had earned among the highest grades ever achieved at Harvard Law School. Upon graduation, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and in his 30s had become one of President Franklin Roosevelt's most trusted advisers. It was FDR who gave Corcoran the nickname that would stick for life - the Cork.
I was introduced to Mr. Corcoran by a senior member of his law firm, Jim Rowe, with whom I shared the same hometown - Butte, Montana. Because of Rowe, Corcoran had a long interest in Montana and its politicians. He insisted I call him Tommy, and we talked for most of the morning. He wanted to visit about general matters: the Rocky Mountains in the spring time, America's foreign obligations, the New Deal and FDR. However, this aging but spry Washington insider - who was a raconteur, could recite ancient Greek, play classical piano and sing Irish songs, all with equal grace - wanted that morning in Washington, D.C., to visit with me foremost about Social Security.
Unshackling young families
Tommy was in the White House at the retirement program's beginning, helped design the original act and was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Senate to vote against the 1935 version of today's "privatization." Corcoran shared with me his memories of the meetings with President Roosevelt as they and others developed the outline of the nation's public retirement program. He told me something about an important but little-known purpose of Social Security.
"Social Security," he said, "protects the young as much as it does the old." He related how FDR would talk privately and persuasively about how important it was to unshackle young working families from the then crushing financial burden of assuming the entire support of their retired parents and grandparents. Prior to Social Security's assurance of at least a supplemental retirement for older Americans, most of America's seniors relied on their grown children, who were already struggling to make ends meet.
Corcoran said that although President Roosevelt spoke publicly about the need to financially secure the later years of seniors, a parallel reason for his push to pass Social Security was to protect the meager incomes of young working-age families. Most Americans know that prior to Social Security most elderly Americans lived near or below poverty. What is not as clear in our national memory is that far too many young working families were also poor, in part because they had to assume the entire financial burden of their parents and grandparents.
$312M a month for 3 states
Here in the three states of the Northern Rockies live 987,000 citizens between the ages of 30 and 55. That prime working age population makes up approximately 37 percent of the population of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Without Social Security the financial well-being of those hundreds of thousands of people, those families, would be far less secure than it is today. An astonishing $312 million dollars in Social Security benefits roll into our three states each and every month. Think about the spending boom created by those millions. But perhaps more important, imagine the overwhelming burden on our working families if those Social Security dollars did not exist to assist the elderly in paying their own way.
Social Security provides its critical benefits to the young and the old alike.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana and now teaches at the University of Montana where he also serves as a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.