This month we mark the diamond anniversary of a national treasure – Social Security, signed into law on Aug. 14, 1935.

It’s a time to celebrate Social Security’s remarkable success. It’s also a time when false assumptions are undermining support for the program and threatening to erode retirement security for our children and grandchildren.

We can’t let that continue. Social Security is arguably the most successful program in the history of the nation. With traditional pensions disappearing and investments suffering, Social Security has become an ever-more-vital source of retirement security.

It pays to remember what a different America we lived in when Social Security arrived. In the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “one-third of the nation (was) ill-housed, ill-clad, (and) ill-nourished.”

With his signature, Roosevelt began what has become the bedrock of economic security for countless working Americans and their families.

Social Security today not only provides monthly benefits to retired workers, but also to families when the worker retires, dies, or becomes disabled.

Fifty-three million Americans receive Social Security benefits – more than 800,000 of whom live in Maryland. They include families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, children who lose a working parent, injured factory workers, widows and widowers.

Those checks put food in the refrigerator and shoes on people’s feet. They buy medicine. They pay for air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. And they pump more than $914 million into Maryland’s economy each month.

For the majority of retirees, Social Security is the firewall between an old age of dignity and one of financial desperation. Older Americans, and especially older minorities, rely on it. In 2008, 24 percent of African Americans age 65-plus depended on Social Security for 100 percent of their family income, and Social Security kept 33 percent of older African Americans out of poverty.

And, yet, as vital as these benefits are, they are modest by any standard. Social Security was never designed to be a worker’s sole source of retirement income. The average retirement benefit in Maryland last year was only $1,107 per month – less than $14,000 a year – and the figure is lower for people who have had modest earnings during their working lives, including many African Americans.

Even so, it’s become conventional wisdom for young people to assume the program won’t be around when they need it. Many older folks also question whether Social Security will be able to pay the benefits they have earned.

Such beliefs reflect widespread misunderstanding and unwarranted gloom. The Social Security trust fund has assets of about $2.5 trillion, and it’s still growing. If Congress does absolutely nothing, Social Security can pay full benefits until 2037 and 75 percent of benefits for decades after that. That’s not the crisis that alarmists predict, but it’s also something we cannot allow to happen.

With the political will, we can address Social Security’s long-term shortfall. Changes should strengthen the program for future generations. Changes must be fair, protecting the most vulnerable. Changes must be consistent with Social Security’s character as an earned benefit, providing a measure of economic security through guaranteed life-long, inflation-protected benefits to those who have paid in.

Some in Washington are proposing cutting Social Security benefits to reduce the deficit. Of course, getting our nation’s deficit under control is important. But instead of raiding the retirement security of future generations, the government should start by cracking down on wasteful, fraudulent, and unnecessary spending, including earmarks and pork-barrel projects.

Social Security has not contributed one dime to the current deficit. The program is self-financed and cannot legally spend more than it collects through payroll taxes, the taxation of benefits, and the assets in the Trust Fund. In fact, for years, Social Security’s surpluses have masked the true size of the deficit in the rest of the federal budget.

We need a national discussion on how to restore retirement security for all Americans. Old-fashioned as it might sound, that dialogue should be civil and bipartisan. It should include strategies to promote more saving in addition to Social Security, such as through incentives to save in the workplace, especially where employers do not offer 401(k) plans.

Keeping Social Security strong should be something we all can agree on. It is one insurance policy we know is fair, with benefits earned by all who pay in.

We all have a stake in getting this right.

Rawle Andrews Jr. is the senior state director for AARP Maryland.