Ebenezer grabbed the spirit’s robes, and out they flew into the night.

Suddenly dipping lower, they saw a ramshackle place marked by the sign, “Gorham Town Farm.” Lower and lower they flew until they heard plaintive voices.

“Who are these beaten-down souls?” Ebenezer asked. “Why are they in this awful place?”

“Listen, Ebenezer,” said the ghost. “Watch.”

A frail, white-haired woman was crying. “Hush, hush now,” said a man, apparently her husband. “It’s going to be OK. We just couldn’t stay with the kids anymore. They have kids of their own now. Space is tight. Money tighter. We’d be a hardship.”

Cruz gasped. “I think I recognize them from family scrapbooks; they’re from my hometown. I never knew them. They died young. But I sure heard about ’em. They worked hard. Went to church. Loved my granddad and his sister. Made a good home. Why are they here?”

The spirit answered, “The mills closed. The mister worked odd jobs till his back went. The missus worked hard, too. The same is true for their kids.

“Like their folks, they barely make ends meet. Their own children need food, clothes. Parents don’t want to make their kids’ lives harder. So they work until they can’t work anymore. That, Ebenezer, is why they ended up here at the poorhouse.”

“But he was just 59. And she was 55. They died in the poorhouse?”

“Yes,” replied the spirit. “Each of them accumulated over 40 years of employment, working more than 60-hour weeks, 52 weeks per year. They didn’t have paid holidays, workers’ comp, sick days, no time-and-a-half for overtime. And there was no old age insurance either.

“Back before Social Security, Ebenezer, half the nation’s seniors were poverty-stricken, destitute. Only 10 percent of America’s elders were able to retire. Physically worn out or disabled, and with far too little saved (because their jobs paid so awfully), they faced a grim old age. No money. No security. No access to doctors, medicine or hospitals. Old age was misery incarnate.”

With that, they flew up into the night.

Across New Hampshire. Massachusetts. Alabama. Illinois. Montana. Washington. California. They saw poorhouses in every state. Poorhouses filled with people too old, too infirm, too broken to work.

 

Ebenezer falls back into his bed. Images of the elderly – lonely, frail, hungry – swirling through his mind. Again, a cold wind whipped him awake.

“Are you the Ghost of Old Age Present?”

“Yes,” answered the spirit. “It’s time to go. Come with me.”

And they were off. Flying over urban neighborhoods, suburban lawns, rural farms, everywhere Ebenezer went, seniors voiced the same fears.

In living room upon living room, elderly couples wondered about the same things.

“The crash of 2008 wiped out a third of our home equity and more of our 401(k)s,” said a grandfather. “Even if we can sell the house, we won’t have enough to live on. What will we do?”

“Now they want to reduce each year’s annual cost-of-living adjustment with this ‘chained CPI,’ ” the grandmother worried. “Why, by the time I’m 80, the chained CPI will have sliced $56 out of the purchasing power of my monthly benefits. That’s food for a week! I’ll have to eat cat food. Damn it, I’ve paid Social Security taxes all my life.”

Bam! Smash! Looking down, the Ghost of Old Age Present saw Cruz on the ground rubbing his head.

“Why did you let go, Cruz?” asked the ghost.

“I was too shocked by what I was hearing.”

“Wait,” said the ghost, “there’s more. Do you realize how few Americans think cutting Social Security is a good idea? Just last week a new poll found that people across the political rainbow – red, blue, purple – support expanding Social Security. In Kentucky, Iowa and Texas, to name a few places, 70 percent or more of those polled oppose the chained CPI.”

Cruz pulled on the ghost’s robes. “But Ghost of Old Age Present,” he asked, “don’t most of the seniors have savings and pensions they can draw on?”

“No-o-o-o,” moaned the ghost. “Half of all Americans have less than $10,000 in savings. Only 20 percent have pensions, though back in 1975 half did. Today Social Security comprises 90 percent of income for about a third of all seniors, and half of all income for two-thirds of seniors. That’s why 67 percent of seniors – after a life of hard work, following the rules, paying taxes, raising kids, volunteering, voting – face downward economic mobility.”

“Cutting Social Security is cruel,” said Ebenezer. “Those people need their Social Security.”

“The ones who need it most also pay the most,” said the ghost. “Seniors who earn less than $113,000 per year pay a larger percent of their income in Social Security taxes than do folks who earn a whole lot more.”

“That can’t be right,” said Ebenezer.

“It’s not right, but it’s true,” said the ghost. “Everybody pays 6.2 percent of their first $113,000 of income into Social Security. After that, all income is exempt. So people who earn $226,000 per year pay just 3.1 percent into Social Security and people earning $500,000 per year pay only 1.4 percent, and if you earn a million per year, the Social Security bite is a measly 0.7 percent. If we eliminated the Social Security earnings cap, there’d be no trouble – none, nada, zilch – with the program’s long-term financial health.”

Back in bed Cruz sighs, and falls into a deep, dreamless sleep. Suddenly both his bedroom windows slam open. Awake, he snaps his head left, then right, then left again.

 

“Whoa, what’s this? Two ghosts? I can’t take it. Leave me alone.”

“No! No! No sleep for you, Ebenezer Cruz,” said the two ghosts, and they yanked the blankets right off the bed. As he lay there shivering, he asked, “What are your names?”

“I am the Ghost of Old Age Misery,” said one.

“I am the Ghost of Old Age Comfort,” said the other.

“If you choose me,” said the Ghost of Old Age Misery, “we’ll cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age and watch seniors slide back into poverty.”

“But if you choose me,” said the Ghost of Old Age Comfort, “we’ll scrap the cap and dump the chained CPI. Seniors will live out their lives with dignity.”

“Ebenezer,” said Misery, “don’t listen to him. He’s happy to run up the national debt. He hangs out with spendthrift, tree-hugging Bambi lovers.”

Drawing up tall, Comfort balled his fists and jabbed at Misery. “Hey, Ebenezer,” he said, “did you know the CEO cheerleaders bankrolling Misery have retirement nest eggs worth an average of $14.5 million? Three of them will retire with more than $100 million. Social Security’s future means nothing to them.”

Ebenezer jumped out of bed and threw on his clothes.

“OK. OK. Comfort, you convinced me. Social Security benefits should go up. Our seniors deserve it. We can afford it. It’s the right thing to do.”

With that, Cruz grabbed his wallet, marched down to the Senior Center and gave Americans their best Christmas present ever – a 20 percent increase in the real value of their Social Security benefits.

— Special to the Telegram