Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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Opinion: Social Security can be lifeline for children, too

August 13, 2010
Jackie Speier
Special to the Mercury News

Read the original piece here

Social Security is a sacred institutional benefit for our nation's retirees. Yet I know firsthand that it can also be a critical lifeline for children.

In 1994, my husband was killed when a motorist ran a red light and broadsided his car. At the time I had a 5-year-old son. And I was pregnant. The life insurance policy I thought existed didn't. Within a few days, I realized I was facing bankruptcy.

My friends kept telling me to apply for Social Security. Soon I learned I could receive monthly payments based on my late husband's earnings, or, if I so chose, a larger benefit could be paid to my son, and a few months later to my newborn daughter.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Social Security this week, I can attest that without the Social Security lifeline provided to my children, I might have faced foreclosure on my house. Almost as important, at a time of crisis I sensed that an important government institution was working as envisioned.

Monthly survivor benefits for children were added to the Social Security Act four years after the program was created in 1935. Last year, 319,127 children were awarded survivor benefits. Overall, 1,435,847 children received benefits in 2009 totaling more than $18 billion.

Children's survivor benefits must be used to support the child. Typical expenses include food, clothes, school and shelter, i.e., the child's portion of the rent, or mortgage. Benefits are payable to children under 18, full-time high school students under age 19 and adult children who become disabled prior to age 22.

Until 1984, Social Security benefits were exempt from federal income tax. Now a portion of benefits is taxed based on income levels exceeding $25,000 for an individual or $32,000 for a married couple. In 1993, a second income threshold was established at $34,000 for an individual and $44,000 for a married couple with tax proceeds going to the Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund. California is one of 28 states that does not impose a state tax on benefits, and I am confident that benefits will remain free from state taxation in California.

The most common payment of benefits is to seniors, who in June of this year received $45 billion. About 72 percent of Social Security beneficiaries are seniors -- that's 38 million people.

Most requests to my office for help in receiving Social Security benefits involve constituents who have been denied a disability benefit. The rules are very strict and you must prove you cannot work. Sometimes a decision may take months to occur and if the benefit award is a large sum, it may take six to 12 months for payment. My office has been able to accelerate awards in two recent cases involving retroactive payments of $15,000 and $63,000.

If you have questions about survivor benefits, retirement or any aspect of the Social Security system, please call my district office, 650-342-0300, or visit my office online at

JACKIE SPEIER, (D-San Mateo), represents the 12th Congressional District. She wrote this article for this newspaper.