There was a factual error in last week's column, a statement that federal employees did not pay into the Social Security fund. In fact, federal government employees (and their employer) have been putting in the 12.8 percent of income required by the Federal Insurance Contribution Act.
Some of them don't know it.
Until 1987, federal workers were covered by the Civil Service Retirement Act, paying up to 8 percent of their paychecks into a pension account but paying nothing to FICA.
Since 1987, they've been under the Federal Employees Retirement System, which is a comprehensive retirement program that packages Social Security with a contributory defined-benefit pension and a 1 percent Thrift Savings Plan that is equivalent to a private employer's 401(k) defined contribution plan. Participation in the FERS is mandatory.
In effect, the federal government imposes on its employees the kind of retirement program it recommends all citizens have in place, one in which Social Security supplements retirement income that an individual can plan. Economic realities being what they are, a large number of retirees do not have adequate retirement benefits set up and rely on Social Security income.
As designed, Social Security is no more than a wide-mesh safety net. Social Security may provide about 30 percent of a retiree's working income, but in many cases it will be less. It won't keep a retiree with no other income from falling into poverty, but it might soften the impact.
A federal worker pointing out the error in the Nov. 18 column felt it slighted federal workers. If anything, the information on the federal retirement program reinforces the issue that American society faces in dealing with unavoidable needs of people as they age and when they fall ill.
The government would very much prefer that citizens take responsibility for themselves. Not everyone can or will. Many employers, like the government, provide health insurance and retirement plans for workers, relieving the worker of the need to plan for themselves.
Many employers do not provide such benefits. The self-employed may choose not to.
The unemployed don't have the ability. Nor does the worker whose income falls around the poverty level, where basic needs of nutrition and shelter use up what there is.
The federal government's poverty threshold is a 50-year-old formula based on cost of food for a family of four. The formula triples the value of a basic food basket to cover other necessities - clothing, housing, essential personal care.
The poverty threshold is used to determine whether a family qualifies for assistance from social services agencies to avoid hunger and meet basic needs, but not all basic needs.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans were living under the poverty threshold in 2010 - $11,139 for an individual, $22,314 for a family of four. A subsequent news story revised the number to 49.1 million, noting that the federal poverty standard does not take into account costs of medical care or retirement plans. But a Census Bureau research project does - weighing costs of living versus income and low-income tax credits ("New census measure finds 49.1M in poverty," Hope Yen/The Associated Press, The Maui News, Nov. 8, 2011 / "The Research Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2010," Census Bureau; www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-241.pdf).
Under the standard, 3.5 million seniors live in poverty, but the number jumps to 6.2 million when health care is added to their costs of living.
With Social Security and now with the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, the federal government is requiring individuals to buy into insurance plans that provide minimal coverage for retirement and health care.
Ideally, every citizen should provide for themselves without government coercion. Ideal is not reality.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.