Our Grandmothers, Ourselves: Social Security Under Fire

It's true that the Wall Street-fueled recession has taken its toll on Social Security's revenues. But who do the deficit hawks want to pay for the greed that got us into this? Your grandmother.
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To commemorate Women's History Month, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked women to reflect on past accomplishments and explore today's key challenges as part of its ongoing Feminomics series. Here's my take on Social Security and the threat from deficit hawks.

The passage of the health care bill has caused many of us to wax poetic about the potential for progressive social reform. Some of the worst abuses of the insurance industry will be curbed. Health insurance companies won't get away with charging more to cover women any longer, for example. That's certainly something to celebrate.

But there's danger on the horizon, particularly for women. Deficit hawks are poised to sink their talons into Social Security, the bedrock social program that allows both men and women to age with dignity. They aim to scare the bejeezus out of us, warning that the only way to reduce the deficit is by cutting Social Security and Medicare. Back in December, Ben Bernanke launched a shot over the bow, evoking legendary bank robber Willie Sutton to describe how he wanted to raid retirement and health care funds: "That's where the money is," he said. Congress, he reminded us, could even repeal Social Security and Medicare.

This week's misleading story that the Social Security system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll tax receipts has sent the hawks on a feeding frenzy. It's true that the Wall Street-fueled recession has taken its toll on Social Security's revenues this year. But who do the hawks want to pay for the Wall Street greed that got us into this? Your grandmother. The reason? Because the real culprits do not intend to pay.

As economist Randall Wray explains, the Social Security hysteria is a big boon to banksters:

"This is to direct attention away from the true insolvencies -- which is all of the major private banks. It is also designed to scare the population about Social Security: will I ever get my Social Security pension?...This is priority number one for Wall Street now, since it has lost trillions of dollars and is massively insolvent. It needs more government bail-out and it wants your Social Security."

Newsflash: Social Security is not contributing to the deficit. It has a surplus, and it isn't going broke. Responding to the recent explosion of nonsense, Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute noted that the Congressional Budget Office report, which was the source for the original story in the Associated Press, has reported that the trust fund for Social Security is actually still growing. The fund is projected to increase from $2.5 trillion this year to $3.8 trillion by 2020. Despite the fact that the fund will pay out more this year because of the massive job loss, Social Security gains interest income from Treasury bonds, so total receipts are still greater than payments.

Amid the myths and fear-mongering, women have a particular reason to be on high alert. We rely on Social Security more than men, but are getting sidelined in decision-making.

Obama's Fiscal Commission has been created to propose ways to reduce the current deficit, including possible cuts to Social Security. But there is only one woman among his five appointees, Alice Rivlin. And there is only one woman, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, among all the other appointments made by McConnell, Reid, Boehner, and Pelosi. Two women out of 18 appointees? That's 11 percent. It's an outrage, considering that women represent 57 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries age 62 and older, and 69 percent of beneficiaries age 85 and older.

Why aren't women invited to the table when our economic security is being decided?

Women's participation in the workforce has skyrocketed since the 1950s, but it seems to have settled at around 70 percent for married women of working age (higher for single women), still far below the rates for working age men (over 90 percent). The incontrovertible fact is that women alone have babies, and they still bear the primary burden of childcare. Most women still leave the workforce after having children for at least a short time, and many leave for years. This means that women usually get lower Social Security benefits than they would have received if they had worked steadily, as most men do. And yet we live longer, and often have special burdens caring for children and grandchildren.

The lack of women on the Fiscal Commission is particularly insulting given that it was a woman who worked tirelessly to bring us Social Security in the first place. It was Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt's indomitable Secretary of Labor, who was responsible for encouraging FDR to include Social Security as part of the New Deal and benefit us all with one of the greatest pieces of social reform in American history. We can't allow deficit hawks and Wall Street greed to shred the critical social safety net that this inspirational woman, often called "FDR's conscience," managed to weave amid fear-mongering just as fierce in her day as it is in ours. Obama, are you listening?

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

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