If you're an American and you have a job, you're supposed to get an annual statement from the Social Security Administration explaining how much money you stand to receive at retirement. It also reports what your dependents will get from the SSA if you die, and what you'll get if you become disabled.
For me, the statement is a stark reminder of how much I rely on my wife's income to survive. As a writer, my income is sporadic, and if I couldn't work, I'd have a difficult time living on my Social Security benefits alone. Many people see the Social Security program as a sort of charity, but fundamentally it is not: The more you put in, the more you get back from it. If a person hasn't made much money, they won't be able to collect enough benefits from Social Security to live on. But even when people do pay in, the system has made it nearly impossible for some people to receive the benefits they deserve.
For physical laborers, the very work they do can end up causing disabilities that prevent them from working. My stepbrother Mark had always had a bad back, but he'd dealt with the problem by loading up on Advil and taking an occasional day off. He never visited a doctor about the problem because his jobs never provided health coverage. Often, before starting a job, his boss would pull him aside and remind him that he was not an employee; he was an “independent contractor,” which meant that the boss wasn't responsible for any injuries or other problems that occurred on the job site. There was no health coverage, no unemployment insurance, no safety net at all, physical or financial.
Once Mark was working on a makeshift bit of scaffolding in the cavernous great room of a partially-completed McMansion. He was 30 feet above the rough plywood floor, balancing on a narrow plank, attaching blocks to the rafters with a nail gun so heavy it was difficult for him to hold it over his head, weakened as he was by his deteriorating back. A nail got caught in the gun, causing it to backfire; the 15-pound piece of equipment glanced off the ceiling before crashing down on his face. The blow cracked a tooth and nearly knocked him unconscious. He's still not sure how he managed to stay on that plank. If he had fallen—supposing he managed to survive—he would have had no way to pay his medical bills.
About eight years ago, Mark realized that he wasn't going to be able to continue doing construction work and other low-paying manual labor. He enrolled in a vocational school to become a dental technician, but as I mentioned last month, even this quickly became too demanding for him. Hours of sitting in class only made his condition worse.