Attacks on Social Security are Attacks on Women and People of Color
Just returning from Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network's 14th Annual Convention, where she spoke about immigrants fighting to realize their dreams, Pramila sent me her presentation for a panel on Social Security tonight with Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), among others. Read more about the event, called “The Threat to Social Security: An Issue for All Generations" and sponsored by Social Security Works – Washington, in The Des Moines News.
Until she started researching it, she tells me, she didn't realize how much women and people of color, in particular, benefit from and rely on Social Security. "We need to stand up and fight for this program," she writes, "because there are people out there who are trying to make us believe that Social Security doesn’t work or that the only way to fix it is to cut benefits for everyone or privatize it."
Go to the event tonight or read her more in her presentation below:
On Jan. 31, 1940, Ida May Fuller became the first person to be issued a monthly retirement check from Social Security. The check was in the amount of $22.54. In 1963, more than two decades after Ida May got her check, another 41-year old woman named Hazel lost her husband, Ed, when he tragically committed suicide as a result of depression—at that time, still undiagnosed or talked about. Hazel had three children, including a 6-year old son. Hazel had graduated from high school but never been to college. She had thought she would spend the rest of her life, as many women did at that time, taking care of the home and the children while her husband earned money to feed the family. Social Security benefits allowed Hazel to survive after Ed’s death—when she was able to pull herself together a couple of years later, that strong woman took a secretarial class and went to work so she could supplement her income to take care of her kids. Ed’s social security benefits paid for all three of her children to go to college, including her youngest child, Steve.
Hazel is my beautiful mother-in-law who just celebrated her 90th birthday and Steve is my wonderful husband—and we all remain incredibly grateful that Social Security prevented the family from going into poverty and allowed the kids to get a college education and good jobs.
It’s fitting that the first person to get a social security check was a woman—today, 57% of those 62 and older and 68% of those 85 and older receiving social security benefits are women. Half of the women (compared to one third of men) who get social security benefits rely on those benefits for 80% of more of their total income. Why do women rely on social security so much more? Partly because we tend to live longer. We also have less access to pensions and retirement plans in the jobs we do. Oh yes, and even though Mitt Romney seems to think we don’t need pay equity legislation to make sure men and women get paid the same for the same jobs, even today in 2012, women still earn less than men.
Now—if you happen to be a woman AND a person of color, Social Security is even more important to you.
People of color tend to work jobs that are more physically challenging, and therefore end up disabled themselves or even dead, leaving behind spouses and children who were dependent on their earnings. People of color, like women, also tend to work for employers who don’t provide pensions or retirement. Recent estimates are that 48% of African Americans and 52% of Latinos over 65 received more than 90% of their income from social security. Over half of people of color receiving benefits receive survivor and disability benefits. One of the great things about the way Social Security is structured is that it offers progressive benefits—meaning that people who earned less during their lives actually get a higher benefit. That makes sense, right? If you’re earning a million dollars and socking away most of it for retirement or savings, you don’t really need the help of a social security check—not the same way that Hazel or others like her do.
In 2009 alone, Social Security has helped more than 14 million Americans aged 65 and older to stay out of poverty, a significant portion of those being women and people of color. In that single year, if you had taken social security benefits away from women recipients, the poverty rate among those women recipients would have gone from 11% to 50%. 50% of women who now receive social security benefits would have been plunged into poverty without those benefits. And taking away Social Security benefits would decimate the middle-class in this country, which has been under attack for a long time, plunging those folks who are barely hanging on in the middle class one level lower, deeper into debt and deeper into a dark future.
So those are the statistics. I don’t know about you, but even as an immigrant rights activist, I had no idea until I started looking at the numbers in preparation for this panel, how much Social Security benefits us as women and people of color. We need to stand up and fight for this program because there are people out there who are trying to make us believe that Social Security doesn’t work or that the only way to fix it is to cut benefits for everyone or privatize it.
I say NO.
Let’s fight for our own vision of America, a vision that says that taking care of people in their old age is what a country that cares about people DOES. A vision that says we have a social compact together, you and me as individuals and us and our government as collectives. We’ll work hard, take care of our families, take care of each other. We’ll share more if we have more. We’re all better off if we’re all better off. We’ll pay taxes so that the collective takes care of the collective, through the form of government programs that reach those who need help. Programs like Social Security that we can count on to take care of us when we get old or when our spouses die or are disabled.
Yes, there are reforms needed, but those reforms are not cutting benefits for the majority or privatizing the system. We need reforms like those proposed by the Commission to Modernize Social Security, a panel made up of national people of color policy experts. The Commission said that what we need to do is to make the program less generous for high income earners. That, combined with scrapping the cap, would allow for increasing benefits for low-income widowed spouses, or updating the special minimum benefit to 125% of poverty income, or providing dependent care benefits to help those who serve as unpaid caregivers for children. And I have to ask, why should anyone get penalized for doing the job of staying home and looking after our children? Isn’t that one of the most valuable jobs in the world, to help raise conscious, confident, caring adults who will take care of us, their communities and their world?
When I was preparing for this panel, I put a call out on facebook for stories from women and people of color in particular who had a story to tell about social security. In just a few hours, I had many stories. Some people posted back on Facebook and others sent me their stories by email so they could stay anonymous. Stories like that of L, whose father was a U.S. Citizen married to an undocumented mother with three young U.S. citizen children. He died young, leaving kids who were 8, 6 and a 4-month-old baby. Her mother survived and raised the kids and sent them to college on social security benefits. Today, L. is a proud organizer for immigrant rights taking care of her mom and siblings. Or like Rebecca who wrote to me about the story of her grandmother, born in 1904, who was left a widow and living in rent-assisted housing and simply would have fallen into poverty and been left homeless without social security benefits. Her grandmother was a domestic violence survivor at a time when survivors and women, in general, had little or no voice, and no ability to build assets or retirement on her own. Or like Hazel, my mother-in-law, and Steve, my husband who owes his college education and the ability to be a productive adult to Social Security.
This society needs social security, so that we can take care of our elders, live a healthy and productive life knowing that when we can no longer work, we will have a society that respects us and takes care of us. Social Security is a bedrock program that defines American values and who we are as a society. Fix it by making those who have more pay more—it’s that simple, it’s that clear.
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