By Allison Stevens
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Female Democrats lay down the gauntlet on Social Security yesterday. They depicted the president's privatization plan--which includes cuts to survivor and disabled benefits--as an assault on women that they were ready to fight.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other Democrats launched a campaign yesterday to build opposition to President Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security among a constituency that they say is most at risk: women.
The official kickoff came on Capitol Hill, where Pelosi and more than a dozen of her colleagues--including one male member of Congress, Sander Levin of Michigan--pledged to incorporate women's issues in the overall debate on Social Security.
They also committed to making it a frankly partisan issue.
"Fresh out of Mother's Day . . . we're ready for the fight," Pelosi said at a panel discussion convened by the Democratic Women's Working Group, an organization of Democratic women in the House. Democrats, she said, are "going to take what they hear today and make it part of the debate on Social Security."
To spread the message, Democrats plan to hold town hall meetings addressing women's stake in the debate over Social Security in congressional districts across the country as Congress begins addressing the legislation, which would allow workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private accounts.
Democrats said they will also reach out to and work with women's organizations and continue to highlight the issue on the floors of the House and Senate.
"Women in this country are not going to sit down on this issue," said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, the only Democratic woman on the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel that has jurisdiction over legislation involving Social Security. Calling Social Security the root of retirement security for women, Tubbs Jones added "We're here to fight."
The national discussion on Social Security has to a large extent ignored the impact on women, who are 60 percent of the program's recipients, panel participants said.
Women rely on Social Security more than men because they tend to live longer and earn less, according to a statement released by Business and Professional Women/USA, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. Women are more likely to take time out of their careers to care for children or elderly relatives and are paid less than men for equal work. Women also tend to have less access to private pension accounts.
Women of color are especially dependent on the federal subsidy because they tend to earn less than men and white women, said Maya Rockeymore, vice president of research and programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. African American women are also less likely to have health insurance, are more likely to be single and are more likely to take care of young children upon retirement, she said.
"We have been told that Social Security is in crisis but I will have you know today that privatization is the crisis for African American women and their families," Rockeymore said.
Nonetheless, women's stake in the debate has been eclipsed by an "all out assault" on a retirement security program that affects all segments of society, cutting across race, gender and geography, said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting Democrat from the District of Columbia.
The political leaders on both sides of the aisle who have driven the discussion are mostly men and have largely ignored the specific impact on women, added Rep. Hilda Solis, a California Democrat who chairs the Democrat Women's Working Group as well as the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues.
Solis plans to change that. "We want to take ownership of this," she said. "We want to present our facts and we want to hear the stories" from women.
Carrie Lukas, director of policy at the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, D.C., disagreed with Solis' assertion that women have been left out of the debate.
"A lot of the issues that affect women are the same issues that affect men," Lukas said. "We all have a stake in not letting Social Security run into insolvency."
Women, Lukas added, would be better served if congressional Democrats took a different approach.
Instead of fanning out across the country to build opposition to the president's plan to handle the entitlement program's projected insolvency, they should present some solutions of their own. "There is bipartisan agreement that Social Security faces real problems," she said. "No one benefits from kicking the can down the road."
Other advocates, however, say women will benefit from a louder discussion of how the dismantling of Social Security could affect them.
Joan Entmacher, vice president of the National Women's Law Center, a legal advocacy group in Washington, D.C., is one of the leading critics of the effects privatization would have on women.
Politicians, said Entmacher, haven't focused on how the president's plan would hurt the women who make up 98 percent of the 14 million spouses and surviving spouses who depend on Social Security benefits after the disability or death of a worker.
The president has said disability benefits will remain untouched but has not specifically stated how survivors will fare. He has said that survivors will be among the "leading gainers from personal accounts" because his plan would enable a worker to give his or her account as an inheritance to anyone he chooses--a power not currently enjoyed by workers, according to White House spokesperson David Almacy.
But Entmacher believes it is safe to assume cuts are in the offing for survivors
--both women and children--of workers who become disabled or die before retirement. She bases her assumption on analysis conducted by actuaries at the Social Security Administration.
Although crucial to women and children, Entmacher said these expected benefit cuts are often overlooked by those participating in the national debate over Social Security. Bush, Entmacher noted, did not mention survivors when he announced some of the details of his proposal in a press conference last month.
Those cuts, Entmacher added, would come on top of a reduction in benefits for middle-income workers under the age of 55, which would impact women as well as men.
Congress, in addition, would likely have to borrow money to finance the president's plan, potentially leading to cuts to other federal programs that aid women and children, Entmacher added.
"Social Security privatization is a threat on many levels to women and their families; as this event shows, women understand that and will not let Social Security be dismantled."
Lukas, however, disagrees. Failing to address the financial problems facing Social Security, she argued, will force the government to raise personal income taxes to pay for the program, which will cost more to society than benefit cuts.
She also points out that the president's plan ensures that low-income families will receive a minimum guaranteed benefit.
"It's really duplicitous for these critics to harp on the idea that women are going to retire in poverty," Lukas said. "It preserves the safety net so that those at the lower end of the economic scale will have today's benefit."
Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women's eNews.
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