Social Security: Don’t fix what isn’t broke


It doesn’t make sense to target Social Security for deficit reduction because it’s not part of the deficit.

NEWCASTLE — Remember how President Bush began his second term with a plan to “privatize” Social Security? Imagine where millions of us would be today if Social Security were a pension plan based primarily on stock market investments.

Well, we dodged that bullet, but the program that transformed American society with retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, survivors’ benefits, and a host of other essential services is about to undergo yet another attack.

In the name of deficit reduction, not itself a bad goal, there’s a proposal to create a fast-track commission to study so-called entitlement programs. What does “fast-track” mean? It means discussion is limited and amendments are prohibited, creating an undemocratic process that’s hidden from you and me.

And, if a fast-track commission is created, the deck will be stacked against Social Security. Already, foes of social insurance, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, are predicting its imminent demise. Parade Magazine recently ran an article with the scary title, “Can We Save Social Security?”

The use of a hasty and undemocratic fast-track procedure would be unprecedented. Since 1935, Social Security legislation has always had the benefit of full hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and unlimited debate and opportunity for amendments in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

It just doesn’t make sense to attack Social Security in the name of deficit reduction; it’s not part of the deficit. The 2009 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees, published May 12, 2009, stated that Social Security ran a surplus of $180 billion last year with a reserve of $2.4 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office, in its August 2009 forecast, said that full benefits can continue to be paid until 2043.

There is ample time for Congress to review options for adjusting the Social Security system through the usual legislative process. There is time to create a well-rounded, balanced commission that recruits members from business, labor, and the general public. And makes recommendations, not edicts.

But Social Security’s opponents have managed to convince too many Americans that the program is wasteful and in a terminal state. Unwarranted panic allows Social Security’s opponents to stage this stealth attack.

As the program’s 75th anniversary approaches, it’s helpful to recall the reason for Social Security’s original enactment.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe wrote last June in a letter to the Frances Perkins Center: “As the chief champion and architect of the Social Security Act, which established not only Social Security but also the Unemployment Insurance program, Frances Perkins demonstrated unparalleled vision, courage, and determination that provided us with some of the strongest federal programs ever”

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins herself said in a radio speech in 1935, “We cannot be satisfied merely with makeshift arrangements, which will tide us over the present emergencies. We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future.”

That goal has been met. Today, as we struggle to rise from the depths of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we can thank Social Security for helping to save our economy from collapse.

While trillions of dollars were lost in 401(k) and other pension accounts, Social Security remained dependable. Its guaranteed payments helped to fill in for lost earnings. The purchasing power those benefits are keeping stores busy and people employed.

More than 52 million people will get monthly benefits this year. Wounded soldiers and their spouses and children receive Social Security benefits, as well as the families of soldiers who have died for their country.

The mystery is, in the face of proof that the Social Security system benefits all of us, why would Congress consider reducing it? Instead, let’s get out the drums and bugles and celebrate this great American tradition. It deserves our support, not death by a thousand cuts.

BARBARA BURT December 11, 2009


Barbara Burt is executive director of the Frances Perkins Center, which advocates for social justice and economic security.

Copyright © 2009 MaineToday Media, Inc.

[An OpEd published in the Portland, Maine, Sunday Telegram]

Architects: They learn their trade in public

What is your mental picture of an architect? Do you imagine a man in a bow tie, talking in a cultured accent about his design theory while standing in a stark, white room containing one or two strikingly uncomfortable pieces of furniture?

This stereotype of architects has misled us for some 40 years.

We, the public, have regarded them as if they were the Grand Poobahs of the built environment — dictatorial, out of touch with reality, interested only in furthering their pet theories.

Not only is this an unfair assessment of a group of dedicated, underpaid, hardworking and talented men and women, but it has caused us to ignore their current and potential contribution to the quality of our lives.

As a profession, architecture is every bit as demanding as law, teaching, or medicine. Legally, the only people who have the right to call themselves architects have passed a difficult set of requirements in order to become registered with the state examining board.

To become an architect and receive a license, you must have received either a five-year professional undergraduate degree or a master’s degree in architecture; completed a three-year apprentice program, and be interviewed by a state examining board of architects and building professionals.

Finally, you must pass a difficult three-day written exam covering all aspects of the profession, including building design (this one section of the test lasts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.), site design, engineering, construction technology and legal issues.

After successfully surmounting these hurdles, you can look forward to working very long hours for salaries among the lowest of any profession. Judith Harvie, executive director of the Maine Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, says the median annual salary for a newly graduated architecture student is $22,000, while that of a registered architect is $26,800.*

One doesn’t strike it rich upon reaching the top of the pyramid, either. in Maine, the median salary for a principal or partner of an architecture firm is $41,600.

And in times of economic downturn, architecture firms are among the first businesses to experience financial difficulties resulting in layoffs. Thus, architecture is a career only for those who are fully committed and who seek rewards other than financial compensation.

Architecture demands an unlikely combination of abilities in its practitioners. Especially in Maine, where firms typically are small and staff members must wear many hats, an architect must be able to create the design, draw it up, oversee and coordinate the work of the engineering consultants and inspect the building while under construction.

In addition, the architect must be able to work with clients, interpreting their needs and providing a buildable solution within the monetary constraints. These clients can range from a family building a new home, to a corporation building its headquarters, to a volunteer school building committee — each group with a different level of understanding about architecture and construction. Somehow, the architect must arrive at a common language with these disparate clients.

What drives some people to choose architecture as a career? Steven Theodore, who is principal (with his wife, Wiebka) of the award-winning partnership Theodore & Theodore, says he was initially attracted to the field because it blends the technical aspects with the artistic.

“The greatest reward is seeing a building grow from its initial conception to its physical execution, ” he said. “Buildings that are successful are buildings where the initial concept remains intact.”

Bill Baxley, a 25-year-old staff member at Moore/Weinrich Architects of Brunswick, will take the professional exam this summer.

“In school, the emphasis is on design and the history of architecture,” said Baxley. “When I began working in an office, I found it challenging to juggle all the different parts of the job. Feeding information to the consultants, keeping to deadlines, following building code restrictions — it’s much more complex than I originally thought it would be.”

“Architecture is problem-solving in a public forum,” said Cynthia Howard, architect and preservation planner, whose office is in Biddeford Pool. “It is a challenge to reach solutions that are both pragmatically and aesthetically pleasing.”

Howard left painting because “it is so private,” choosing instead to pursue architecture, where “you get feedback from the user.”

Writing in the journal Landscape Architecture, Laurie Olin, principal in the Philadelphia firm of Hanna/Olin Ltd., talks about the meaning of architecture:

“Whether seen from afar or up close, architecture is clearly a compositional art, and despite its practical nature, it is one of the most lasting expressions of culture and art. There is a rigor and discipline imposed by the medium and process that, when mastered, provides great freedom within structure. Architecture offers but never guarantees a profound connection to society.”

This connection can be nourished by the attention, criticism and enthusiasm of a public that follows architecture. Without a discerning public responding to developments in their field, architects may feel they are working in a void.

Yet architecture, complicated by real-world constraints to a far greater extent than any other art form, also has a stronger impact on our lives than any other art form.

Look around you. Does your building succeed as shelter? Is it physically comfortable? What messages does it convey to you about our society? What would you change about it if you could?

The more you practice this method of questioning, the more creative and perceptive you’ll become. Then, the next time you are with an architect, speak up.

[This is another in the Architecture & Design series I wrote for the Portland, Maine, Press Herald in the 1990s.]

*According to the Department of Labor, the median annual wage for an architect in 2012 was $73,090. Almost 26 percent of architecture jobs were lost between 2008 and 2011 (from 96,480 to 71,460). More recent figures are not yet available but the outlook is improving somewhat.

Smaller may be better: In school design, think like a child

Imagine being three-and-a-half feet tall and staring down a 300 foot long corridor filled with hundreds of strangers.

When September rolls around again, thousands of Maine children will face this daunting environment.

Due to population growth, lack of long-range planning and tight budgets both at the state and local levels, communities may feel their  state-funded elementary school planning and design options are limited to the megaschool concept.

That’s not necessarily the case, say design professionals. But it takes strong leadership on the part of the school administration, the building committee and the architects to arrive at a solution that reflects the educational philosophy of the community, the needs of its children, and is at the same time financially feasible.

What is the optimum number of students for an elementary school? While it is difficult to pin down an exact number, both folklore and current educational research indicate that smaller is better.

We nostalgically invoke the one-room schoolhouse, where everyone knew everyone else, the children all had chores to perform–such as breaking the ice on the water bucket or chopping the wood for the stove–and the teacher boarded with one or more of the families in the community.

No doubt, the one-room schoolhouse had inherent problems as well. If saddled with an incompetent teacher or an apathetic community, the school must have provided a wretched introduction to learning.

However, a small school, with its additional resources, can overcome the pitfalls of the one-room schoolhouse. At its best, it can introduce children to the world of intellectual inquiry and give them a sense of their own ability to solve problems in a flexible, cooperative manner.

In addition, small schools are better able to welcome parental involvement, an important ingredient in both individual students’ success and the success of the school as a whole.

Just as children are intimidated by the physical size of a megaschool, parents are intimidated by the size of its bureaucracy.

Educator Deborah Meier, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the innovative principal of a public high school in New York City, feels very strongly that high schools should be small as well.

Writing in the New York Times, she states, “Young people cannot learn democratic values in a setting that does not value individual achievement, that cannot notice triumphs and defeats, has no time to celebrate or mourn, or respond with indignation or recognition as the situation requires.

“In small schools,” she continues, “parents hear about the same teachers, students and families year after year in a variety of formal and informal ways. Trust builds and issues that arise get settled handily. Accountability to parents, as well as to the community, is a less knotty problem.”

Certainly an argument could be made that if Meier suggests a maximum of 500 students for a high school, the number should be smaller for an elementary school.

Some experts suggest 250 students should be the maximum number. Even in an elementary school of 500, it is all too easy to create an institution where waiting in line is a frequent experience and conformity an unstated objective.

Currently, the Maine State Board of Education mandates that not more than 25 students on average may occupy a classroom, but when it comes to total student population, there are no limits. Consequently, communities have to decide that question for themselves.

In the larger school districts, like School Administrative District 75 in Topsham, where students come from a number of small, diverse towns, the question of school size can be fraught with emotionally charged debate.

Not only are the parents afraid of losing touch with a school located in a distant town, but the electorate is less likely to feel personally involved in a megaschool encompassing a number of towns.

Communities vote down schools for an exasperating number of reasons, but surely feeling alienated from the project is a major cause of voter disapproval.

Why to so many megaschools get proposed? The perception is that the state funding can be received only if the town or SAD agrees to consolidate its core facilities (library, gym, cafeteria).

In fact, the state is willing to be more flexible than that, but at some cost to the communities involved.

“It takes a tremendous amount of negotiation,” says architect Steven Moore, “and it helps to have a certain understanding as to how the system works.”

As an example, Moore cites the experience of the Oxford/Otisfield school district (SAD 17). Rather than build one combined facility for the approximately 825 elementary school students in these two communities, two schools were built. Each town was able to retain its neighborhood school.

The district, however, had to bear the additional $305,000 of the construction cost over the cost of a single consolidated school.

“It was not an easy task to convince the voters,” added Moore. “But Ken Smith, the superintendent, had initiated the long-range planning and had laid the groundwork.”

The district began working with Moore/Weinrich Architects in 1978 to develop what came to be known as the “community schools plan,” now coming to fruition with the construction of the Oxford and Otisfield elementary schools.

In the view of the public, the architect’s job is to design a building. Yet architecture begins with the research and articulation of the client’s needs in a document called the “program.”

Communities should expect and require their school administration and chosen architecture firm to collaborate with them in developing a program that asks the basic questions: How do we want our school to interact with the community? What are the geographical and historical issues we should consider? What sort of an educational experience to we want to provide for our children?

In the next article in this series, we will examine how communities and their architects have dealt with these questions in several school projects around the state.

[This is the first in a series of articles published in the Portland, Maine, Press Herald in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to locate the follow-up article to this first one.]