One Problem Congress Could Fix

(AP / CBS)
CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen tells us about a mother of three who just discovered that Social Security isn't all that social and doesn't provide all that much security.

People always talk about Social Security in the abstract and politicians of all stripes throw around fantastic numbers describing it-- figures that have long since lost their meaning. But here is a story about Social Security and one woman, one family, that draws into clear focus what the program should be about and why it fails too many people.

Claire Collier is a mother of three. For 16 years, from 1979 until 1994, she worked and paid into Social Security the way the rest of us do. Then she left her job to become a mother and stay home through the birth of her other children. So far, it's a story that millions of us can relate to and identify with. But here is where the story changes. In 2003, Collier was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. Her family spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her care and then applied for Social Security, figuring that her years in the workforce would generate some sort of disability pension.

They figured wrong. It turns out that the law as it currently stands requires a person to have a "sufficient recent work history to qualify for benefits." If you are over 31 years old, you have to have worked five of the past ten years to be eligible for disability benefit. That rule precludes Collier because she hasn't worked since becoming a mother. And it's a rule that precludes all other mothers and fathers who have decided to stay home and raise their children. Does that sound like good policy to you? It doesn't to me.

A federal appeals court last week agreed that Collier's story was a "human tragedy" but was unwilling-- the judges said they were unable-- to help Collier. She had argued that the Social Security rule was unconstitutional because it burdened women (stay-at-home-moms) more than others. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court said, however, that it could find no evidence that Congress intended to discriminate against women in this way. But the judges also implored Congress to remedy the problem. And, indeed, pending in both chambers, is the "Claire Collier Social Security Disability Insurance Fairness Act."

You don't need to be ill, or on Social Security yourself, to recognize that Collier deserves more from a system into which she had paid all those years. The new Congress has talked a lot recently about wanting to "hit the ground running" and break through the gridlock of the past few terms. Here is its chance.