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A Father’s Life Story

A manila folder in my office holds a vinyl case that contains three life insurance policies, carefully stowed away many years ago. I happened upon them this week and read, amid the legalese, the story of a father’s life.

My father-in-law met his future wife in the displaced persons’ camps in Germany after World War II. They married in 1946 and soon sailed for Brooklyn. His wife’s sister came with them.

The newlyweds arrived with virtually nothing. They found a basement apartment on Bergen Street, slept on the sand at Coney Island to keep cool on hot summer nights, became American citizens and discovered baseball and the Dodgers. His wife, shy and slow to learn English, kept house and studied to operate a mechanical calculator called a comptometer. It would be years before she felt ready to apply for a job.

My father-in-law did whatever he needed to do to support them. He was a grocery clerk, a “loader” of ball bearings into machinery that made rollers, a machinist and eventually a taxi driver. Nobody worried much in those days about job satisfaction or work-life balance. If you were a man, your duty was to put food on your family’s table and a roof over their heads. You worked if you could. You made other arrangements if you could not.

So on April 8, 1950, my father-in-law applied for a $5,000 policy from Metropolitan Life. His wife was the primary beneficiary; her sister was the contingent beneficiary if his wife did not survive him. He was 31 and in good health. He duly reported that his father had died in 1944, at age 65, in a concentration camp. Curiously, his application noted that his “mother” likewise died in the concentration camp, at age 28, the same year. That woman was his father’s second wife; she would have been about 3 years old the year my father-in-law was born. Metropolitan Life seems not to have cared.

The policy cost $123 for a year’s coverage, payable in advance. It must have seemed like a lot of money, but my father-in-law knew that his wife would need that $5,000 if she lost him.

Their only child, my wife, came along in 1957, at which time he took out a second $5,000 policy, this one with Connecticut General. In 1959 he updated the original Met Life policy to make his daughter, rather than his wife’s sister, the contingent beneficiary.

He added a third $5,000 whole life policy, from Companion Life Insurance Company of New York, in 1966. “This policy is one of your most valuable possessions,” a legend on the policy jacket cautioned. “Keep it in a safe place. Do not let it lapse.”

He never did.

My father-in-law worked until he was 80. He is 92 now, and his vision is poor, so I plan to read this column to him when my wife and I visit him on Sunday for Father’s Day. His wife died last summer. My father died in December.

Life insurance sales have declined markedly in recent decades. LIMRA, a trade group, reported last year that only 44 percent of American households have individual life insurance policies — a 50-year low — and that 30 percent have no coverage at all. This means that about a quarter of U.S. households have insurance coverage only through group plans, usually employer-sponsored, which can result in lost coverage if the employee loses his or her job.

Not every household needs life insurance. Young, single people with no debt usually need disability coverage much more than they need life insurance. Retirees with no mortgage, ample pensions and adequate savings can frequently do without it. Having two wage-earners with strong earning power may reduce the need for coverage, though I often ask young parents what would happen to the survivor’s career if one of them died. Often, they conclude that the survivor would want to cut back on work hours or pressure, and would accept less income in order to spend more time at home with the children. We take this into account when we calculate insurance needs.

Even allowing for exceptions and mitigating circumstances, the inescapable conclusion is that many people today are taking financial risks that my father-in-law’s generation would have deemed unacceptable. Education and health care, in particular, have gotten so expensive that I suspect many people feel they simply must roll the dice on the low risk of a premature death in order to meet the more immediate demands of these hard-to-avoid costs.

But it is a false trade-off. My wife’s parents lived in a basement and slept on a beach. Though college was less expensive in her time, her father still drove his taxi 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, to make sure she could attend it. Restaurant meals were rare and vacations were rarer. There were plenty of things her parents wanted. They just wanted financial protection for their family more.

The women of my Baby Boom generation had opportunities their mothers never did, and most men my age are glad of it. We expect our daughters to benefit from the same career options and earning potential as our sons. We recognize that with the cost of housing, education, health care and retirement these days, it is neither fair nor realistic to expect a husband, by himself, to provide his family with a comfortable and secure life. Very few of us would recreate the society of the early postwar years, even if we could.

Yet a lot of Baby Boomer boys like me developed our concept of what it is to be a husband and a father by watching men like my father-in-law. We admire their willingness to do whatever needed to be done, without complaint and without bemoaning what they sacrificed. When our daughters bring their future husbands home to meet us, we want someone who will put his family first.

Happy Father’s Day.

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