As politicians debate the future of Social Security, federal workers sang "Happy Birthday" yesterday and ate cake to mark the 70th anniversary of the agency responsible for providing retirement and disability benefits to millions of Americans.
Though the celebration in the cafeteria at the agency's headquarters in Woodlawn had the feeling of a farewell party, Jo Anne Barnhart, commissioner of Social Security, assured the crowd of federal workers that they would continue to provide an important public service.
The 70th anniversary "provides us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect back, but [at] the same time, to look forward to the future," Barnhart said. "This program deserves to have Republicans and Democrats coming together to find a solution, and I believe they will."
A New Deal creation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the agency estimates that this year more than 48 million Americans will receive about $518 billion in Social Security benefits.
But with analysts projecting that by 2031, there will be almost twice as many older Americans as today -- from 37 million today to 71 million -- program reform has become a hot political topic.
The benefits of today's retirees are secure, Barnhart said, adding that the changes are needed for future generations, including her 17-year-old son.
President Bush and some Republican congressmen favor investing surplus Social Security funds and parceling them up into individual accounts that could be invested in bonds or stocks.
Leading Democrats say they agree that Social Security's surplus should not be spent on other federal programs, but they don't agree that private accounts are the way to solve the financial problems.
Barnhart said the agency's analysts are estimating the costs of the various proposals "so that the decision-makers can make good decisions."
Larry DeWitt, a historian for the Social Security Administration, said the program has always been the subject of denbate. "By its nature, it should have controversy," he said. "This is a big deal. It's a big program, providing financial stability to hundreds of millions of Americans."
The agency, which moved its headquarters to Woodlawn in 1960, has also been a major economic force in Baltimore County. "This was all farmland," DeWitt said. "Security Boulevard was a dirt road. But it's become an anchor for the whole west side of the county."
The Baltimore County campus, with 10 buildings and 4 million square feet of space, has about 12,000 employees. They issue disability and retirement checks and Social Security cards. Workers in Woodlawn also answer benefits questions from calls to the agency's toll-free number.
It took three cakes to feed several hundred employees who stopped by the anniversary celebration during their lunch breaks. One of the cakes was iced with "70" in red, followed by what has become the anniversary slogan for the agency: "Social Security: Celebrating Seven Decades of Service."
Beatrice Gaines, who specializes in giving presentations about new Social Security programs, said, "There's some concern out there about the future of Social Security."
But, she said, she has enjoyed relaying the good news to those nearing retirement: "'You won't be affected.' I see a lot of people relieved."
Despite the clerical nature of much of the work they do, Social Security workers said helping people receive monthly checks that pay for food, housing and clothes makes them feel like they're contributing.
"When you look back, you see that this program has provided hope for so many people, especially the elderly," said Gaines, adding that she has fond memories of helping families apply for benefits while working in field offices. "And it will continue to be there for people in the future."
Mark E. Hinkle, a Social Security Administration spokesman, said the celebration was important in the life of the agency.
"Events like this make you stop and reflect on how we've changed and we need to change in the future," Hinkle said.
"We touch nearly every American, from when their parents get them Social Security cards when they're born to when they get their first job and start paying [social security] taxes," he said.