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Robbing Grandma to Reward Wall Street

Martha Burk

When I grew up in Texas, the dance we all learned was the Texas two-step. But times have changed. The next big dance these days could be called the Social Security double shuffle. A good number of senators are waltzing to the music of the "let's cut Social Security" crowd by trying to sell a solution to the deficit designed to hack apart the government-guaranteed retirement plan we've had since the 1930s.

Led by Budget Committee members Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg (R-NH), they're pushing a bipartisan Commission for Responsible Fiscal Action to solve the country's red-ink problem. Sounds pretty good on the surface. Who's not for responsible fiscal action? Trouble is, this kind of commission subverts the democratic process. It uses a fast-track approach that forces Congress into an up-or-down vote on its recommendations. No debate, no amendments, no consulting with constituents.

Though such a commission is supposed to consider all options for cutting the deficit, many see it as an attack on elders. "It is clear from their press release that Senators Conrad and Gregg have painted a big red target on Social Security and Medicare," Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) warned. "That's what this commission is all about. It's a big roll of the dice for Social Security and Medicare." Public interest groups like the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, a coalition of national not-for-profit organizations focused on the well-being of America's 87 million older adults, oppose the idea too.

Women's groups are particularly outraged at the Senate penchant for dancing with Wall Street fat cats. Whether we like it or not, women are still the majority of low-wage workers in the United States. That means they have less to contribute to the system, and lower returns when they retire.

"The average Social Security recipient receives $13,860 annually, less if you are a woman. The fact that Senators Conrad and Gregg think the way to fix budget shortfalls is to make seniors poorer is shocking and laughable first, because Social Security doesn't contribute in any way to the national deficit, and second, because essentially Congress has allowed $150 billion in Wall Street bonuses," stated Ashley Carson, executive director of the Older Women's League. "Robbing grandma to reward Wall Street fat cats is not sound economics."

Women are far less likely than men to have a company-provided pension, and when they do get one, it's most often based on a lifetime of lower earnings. So women depend on Social Security more than men. Women are also the majority of caretakers when a spouse dies and leaves young children (who draw Social Security until they're 18). Many single-parent families couldn't make it without this feature of Social Security-but nobody's talking about what will happen to disability and survivor payments if the system is shredded.

Widows would lose too-and women who get divorced. Social Security now protects both groups with guaranteed benefits based on spousal earnings, even if they tended home and hearth while hubby went out to work. Without Social Security, an astonishing 59.2 percent of elderly women would live in poverty.

Neither Wall Street, nor an unaccountable commission, brought us to a national retirement system with guarantees we can't outlive, payments that are indexed to inflation, and benefits that help the middle and lower earners more than the rich. That came to us courtesy of a forward-looking congressional leadership that created a system which spends less than one percent of its revenue to administer the largest benefit program in America.

And one more thing: Social Security isn't part of the deficit problem-it actually ran a $180 billion surplus last year.

Even if this commission is shot down this time around in the Senate, it's bound to be back. Bad ideas have a way of doing that. Let the Budget Committee barons shuffle across the floor with the big gamblers on Wall Street if they want to. Just don't ask ordinary people, particularly women, to pay the piper with reduced retirement benefits.

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Martha Burk is a political psychologist, women’s issues expert, and director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO).

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