By Martha Burk, Other Words
July 2, 2010
President Obama’s Fiscal Commission–a group of lawmakers, former officials, and other experts charged with developing a bipartisan plan to stabilize our soaring national debt–is primarily holding closed-door hearings. The commission’s co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, recently became an instant YouTube star with his rant against seniors as he exited one of the panel’s sessions. That put Social Security defenders on high alert about what’s going on in these meetings.
Simpson, who is nearly 80, has maintained that the founders of the program never expected anyone to actually live to 65 and collect. “People just died,” he has said. “Social Security was never [for] retirement.”
The program has always been an easy target for deficit hawks and budget cutters because it’s so big–the government’s largest expenditure, just ahead of the Pentagon. But setting up a target isn’t as easy as actually hitting it. George W. Bush found that out when he proposed privatizing the system so we could all invest in the likes of Enron, Lehman Brothers, General Motors, and Goldman Sachs. Thanks to a massive campaign by progressive interest groups, that proposal was shot down. But like Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, the nightmare of cutting Social Security never dies –it just returns in a new form every few years.
Tea partiers, egged on by Sarah Palin, were fond of claiming during the health-care debate last summer that government “death panels” were going to off our grannies, even though it was an outright lie. Now that we have a much more serious and credible threat to the well-being of our elderly poor population (the majority of whom are female) in possible cuts to Social Security, Palin and company are strangely silent.
Not so the progressive groups that want to preserve the program. Ashley Carson, Executive Director of the Older Women’s League (http://www.owl-national.org) and member of the Social Security Works coalition, points out that those same grannies the tea party has apparently forgotten about are the ones who will suffer the most if the program is cut.
Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, agrees. “Raising the retirement age and other ways of cutting benefits would all have a devastating effect on older women, many of whom live alone and depend mainly or entirely on Social Security,” she says.
The numbers bear this out. Women depend on Social Security more than men, and without it, close to 60 percent of elderly women would live in poverty. One reason is that 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 much for Simpson’s “greedy geezers.” Even younger women would suffer if the program is cut, since they are the majority of caretakers when a spouse dies and leaves young children, who draw Social Security until they’re 18.
Simpson may have embarrassed some of less flamboyant members of the Fiscal Commission with his outburst, but it remains to be seen whether in their hearts they believe he’s right. And whether granny is really in the crosshairs this time.
Martha Burk is the money editor for Ms, and author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in the Workplace and What Can Be Done About It.