For as long as I can remember, every few years, the government alerts us to the oncoming day when the Social Security accounts run out of cash.

Recognition of our collective responsibility to provide a predictable income for those who worked their 40 to 50 years, and who might not be able to continue to provide for necessities as their bodies begin to fall apart and younger employers choose not to hire them, came in 1935, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.

The funding mechanism for this bit of civil kindness was pretty straightforward at the time. Payments would come from a fund that received its supply of money through a payroll tax on current workers. In other words, my mother’s payroll taxes paid for her parents’ generation’s retirement; my payroll taxes helped cover Mom’s last years, and funds paid in by today’s workers help me pay my bills.

If it was up to me, I’d keep paying them all by myself, but the job market has its own rationale. What, prior to the pandemic, covered about half my expenses must now stretch to cover them all. With the employment patterns of the last hundred years under total disruption, I am not alone.

When National Public Radio reported this week that, “Social Security’s massive trust fund will be unable to pay full benefits in 2034 instead of last year’s estimated exhaustion date of 2035,” it was not a total surprise.

The reason they gave for this news was that, “For the first time in 39 years the cost of delivering benefits will exceed the program’s total income from payroll tax collections and interest during this year. From here on, Social Security will be tapping its savings to pay full benefits.”

For lifetime low-wage workers and folks who stayed home to raise the kids, such as myself, Social Security provides less than $1000 a month. Under the current formula, if you made $50,000 a year, you could expect about $30,000 in annual Social Security payments. Someone who earned $25,000 annually and retired at 62 would have  about $18,000 to work with.

If you are not one of the 65 million retirees, disabled people, and survivors of deceased workers who rely on Social Security, you might not know that about $150 a month is deducted from the benefit to cover the Medicare “Part B” premium for outpatient coverage.

Most pundits will tell you Social Security is unsustainable. Under the current rules, they would be right. That is in part because earnings beyond $142,800 are not subject to the payroll tax. The benefit for folks is around $60,000 and the payout doesn’t really go up from there.

While it might seem unfair to ask for an end to the earnings cap without providing a similar end to the cap in benefits, it’s worth considering that a middle-class family income in today’s U.S. is between $50,000 and $150,000, with the median household income running at around $70,000.

Of course, not all income is earned. Wages, salaries, bonuses, commissions, tips and net earnings from self-employment are all considered earned income and are taxed as such. Income from investments and other sources unrelated to employment, such as interest from savings accounts, bond interest, alimony and dividends from stock are considered unearned income and are not subject o payroll taxes. Much of the annual increase in the wealth of those whose income is in the top 25% is unearned and not subject to payroll taxes.

This income inequality arises from the power of capital to increase itself as an indirect benefit of the labor that keeps our economy going.

There’s an argument to be made for the unfairness of asking people to pay into a Social Security account that won’t give them back more. But the logic of compassion calls on us to act for one another, not just ourselves.

The top 1% of earners each bring home at least half a million dollars a year. There are about a million of them. If that added income were subject to the payroll tax of 6.2%, they would add upwards of $21 billion to the fund, each and every year. For that $500,000 earner, that means an additional $22,000 would move from their pocket to the pockets of the people who wait on them at restaurants and sell them their groceries. It would mean they’d have to get by on $478,000 instead of the half million they’re used to spending.

That’s money that could pay rents and repairs cars and maybe even take a retiree out for supper some time. It could even help make that mandatory premium payment for Medicare Part “B.”

It might not fix the system entirely, but it’s a start.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a bi-weekly basis.