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Breaking Critical Promises Made to Working Women

My advancing age makes me think more about what kind of retirement lies ahead for me.  I am more afraid now than I ever have been about the clock ticking ever faster toward the day when I will not have the resources to retire well and will have to keep working for someone else longer than I may want to or am able to physically.

And in the current political environment, with growing amounts of vitriol aimed at anything termed an "entitlement" program like Social Security or Medicare, many of us who believed there would be a social insurance safety net in place for us as the bumps and bruises of life kept us from being independently wealthy leading into our later years are scared and rightly so.  There are targets on our backs as if we have somehow been slackers who see ourselves as "entitled" to something we did not earn.

That offends me.  That sort of thinking terrifies me.  I have worked very hard for more than four-and-a-half decades.  No slacking.  I have been willing to do whatever it took to keep my family afloat financially.  And no matter what, I have worked.

Like many women in my generation, I began working outside my home as a young teenager, and I began contributing to Social Security and sometimes when I could do so to other retirement plans.  But also like many women who work outside the home, I often worked jobs that did not afford me enrollment in retirement plans or have any employer contribution to speak of to those plans.

Additionally, as we have all seen in recently released studies, women still earn about 70 percent of what men do for the same work in the United States.  That drastically and negatively impacts our ability to have the same benefits accumulated when we reach retirement age.  Add a few negative life events - a divorce, an illness, and unexpected trauma here and there - and women face sometime total reliance on those social insurance benefits - Social Security and Medicare - to which we have contributed throughout our lives rather than have those benefits simply be a supplement to some private retirement funds.

So when Social Security and Medicare are targeted, I am targeted.

President Obama's debt commission has begun its "bipartisan" work.  Where have we heard this before? How did women and working folks fare in their other bipartisan efforts? In the latest New York Times report, "Mr. Obama met privately with the commission members at the White House before their meeting at an executive office building across the street. In the Rose Garden afterward, he told reporters that he had insisted that everything be on the negotiating table."

I sure had everything on the table as I worked for my family.  I left it all on the field, friends.  And there's not much left for me now.  I will keep working as hard as I can for as long as I can - and I hope as smart as I can - but I am angry that the rules of engagement are about to change for me again.  I am tired of trying to reinvent myself financially - time is running out. 

Like many other women, my husband is older than I.  In recent years due to the collapse of his primary profession of machining and the collapse of his health, I have also become the primary breadwinner in our family.  It is my employment that provides us our benefits; it is my employment that pays the lion's share of the family obligations.  And within the corrupt and crumbling healthcare system, it has been my income and my employment that has had to protect my husband's failing health.  I have no retirement funds left - every penny of what we have ever had has gone to keep my husband alive.  I have worked hard to make sure of that.

So when the President's commission looking at entitlements decides to chop Social Security either by cuts to actual benefit payments or by raising the retirement age or both, I get very angry and very defensive.  And when those on the panel want to puff themselves up by cutting Medicare benefits, I shudder.  The entitlement cutting these Presidential appointees are lining up to endorse as if they are proving they are good stewards of my money are proving just the opposite.  The cuts are a slap in the face and much worse for millions and millions of women in this nation and the cuts will harm us for generations to come.

Cutting benefits that will disproportionately injure women in their retirement years is wrong on many levels.  Cutting benefits upon which a lifetime of working to protect others seemed worthwhile because of a safety net for me in the end is breaking a contract upon which I significantly relied.  I suspect if I relied on the promise of Social Security and Medicare to protect me from poverty and a quicker death in my later years then so too have millions of other women (and men) as we watched the contributions from our paychecks and trusted we were at least protected in that way.

Saying "shame on you" does not work when said to those in the well-heeled classes of rulers in this nation who seem intent on selling some sort of fiscal conservatism and corporatism as a way to honey-up to the radical right or show themselves as governing from the middle.  There is no middle ground in breaking a contract millions of people took seriously for decades as a hedge against suffering when we got old.

A broken promise, a broken contract, is just that.  We've already seen the horrible unfolding of the corporate agenda in writing the health insurance reform bill upon which this nation's health system will surely collapse in future years as costs continue to rise and citizens continue to go broke and die while insured and denied appropriate care.  Any system designed to be better for the few who have greater resources necessarily harms women more.  And we are certainly being slapped now, aren't we?

I once asked a good friend and wise woman I knew, "What do you think that feeling of impending doom is?"

She answered, "Impending doom."  Clear and simple.  I have that feeling now.

Cutting my Social Security and cutting my Medicare is cutting short the years I may have left on this earth to enjoy life.  And there are millions like me.  There is no way to restore years of life lost once you do that to us.  And I, for one, have no intention of letting that happen quietly.  I worked too hard and cared too much for those around me to have "entitlement cutters" with no moral compass or sense of social justice at all determine the quality of my life should be any less than anyone else's. 

Everybody in, nobody out.  Women in this nation deserve the "entitlements" we have worked for and relied upon.  And if you do not protect those benefits for women, you should stand accountable to the women injured.

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith is the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America.  PDA's mission is to strengthen the voice of progressive ideas inside and outside the Democratic Party by using "inside/outside" and "grassroots fusion" models of working both in the Democratic Party as well as working with other progressive organizations both inside and outside the Party.

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