Saturday, March 08, 2008

My Earnings Record

The story of my life by the numbers. Read 'em and weep ...

Recently I got my annual statement from the Social Security Administration, letting me know what I can expect someday in the way of retirement income. I look forward to these, because as a rule they are going up each year as my income and benefits continue to rise, however slightly. But that wasn't always the case.

An interesting page in this report is titled "Your Earnings Record," which is about the most cheerful phrase you will ever see in a government publication. It contains my whole life reduced to two columns of dates and figures representing my reported income throughout my entire employment history. It's interesting to note the peaks that represent new jobs and bumper years, as well as the valleys of recession and unemployment.

Most interesting, perhaps, are the three years in which my income totaled about $1,000, and how different those years actually were. The first one was not my first year of employment, either. That year (1968) I made a whopping $2,200 on which I was able to move out of my mother's house and set up in my own rented room. No, instead the first thousand dollar year was the one in '72 that I spent living in a van during the dregs of the sixties. (The "sixties" didn't really end, you know, until the Vietnam War ended in '75).

By the next year you can tell not only that I was employed again, but that inflation had driven wages up. My first job as a student had paid 1.25 per hour, but by this time the minimum wage was up to 2.40 and climbing.

However, no sooner had I found this new prosperity than the recession of '74 hit and I had my second thousand dollar year. The difference this time was that I also had unemployment compensation, so I really did a lot better than that, and was able to continue to support myself without too much difficulty.

In '76 I started my own business, and you can see its whole 25-year history in the succession of peaks and valleys that mark the progress and faltering of the company, as well as the national economy, during that period. It ends with a mild cha-ching as I sold it, though not for enough to retire on, and tried to make a go of it as an independent consultant. The result of this was my third (and hopefully final!) thousand dollar year.

This time, however, that level of income was enough to insure I was headed for insolvency if I didn't get my act together and get a real job again. The difference was partly due to my lifestyle. As a homeowner now, with a hefty mortgage and taxes to pay, that thousand bucks just didn't go as far as it used to. Not to mention that continued inflation over 25 years had eroded its value to a fraction of what it had been. Car in 1975: $4,000. Gas: 44 cents per gallon. House: $35,000. You know what those things cost now.

But it still amazes me to look back on those thousand dollar years. And how could I afford to move out of my mother's house on only $2,200? Because I rented a furnished room for $8 a week (ridiculously cheap even then). Because I owned my $400 used VW free and clear. Because I could fill it up with gas for $4.50. Because the insurance cost a couple of hundred per year. Because I could eat dinner at the deli or diner for $2.25 plus tip, a little more if I got dessert.

Ah well, those days are long gone. Now it looks like, if I work till I'm 70, the good old Social Security Administration will be paying me that $2,200 annual salary every month. And I'll need every penny of it to survive.

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