By Janice Harris Jackson
AMERICA’S 1935 AVANT-GARDE promise to provide Social Security has progressed from protection for predominantly male private-sector workers to an expanding social safety net for most Americans. Although it remains one of the best anti-poverty programs America has for women and seniors, Social Security can – and must be – strengthened.
For some of those mostly female surviving spouses who receive government pensions from the 15 “non-Social Security states,” the harsh Government Pension Offset (GPO) greatly reduces or eliminates their benefits.
Remedying this means Americans must invest more in Social Security, not less. We must be vigilant that a continuation of last year’s 2 percent payroll tax cut for workers in concert with a similar payroll tax reduction for employers does not jeopardize Social Security. While these actions stimulate the economy, we cannot forget those mostly female surviving spouses economically compromised by the callous GPO.
I recall tearful testimony from a retired female educator at a conference in Maine. Let’s call her Geri. Having recently lost her husband, Geri’s plans to live on her monthly teacher’s pension of $1,800 with an additional $1,500 in Social Security widow’s benefits were devastated by the GPO policy that would reduce her benefits by two-thirds the amount of the government pension she had earned.
I felt a unique camaraderie with this “baby-boomer” who had also dedicated her life to her children, her Vietnam Veteran husband and her career as an educator. Because Geri taught in one of the states where government employees still do not pay Social Security Taxes, her widow’s benefit would be reduced from $1,500 to $300. What middle-class American can negotiate a $1,200 loss in monthly income? The lifestyle that Geri and her husband had worked to achieve was jeopardized by this radical change in her anticipated income. How many American women have spouses who have paid Social Security taxes for years, even in the military, and do not live to collect their benefits?
Why shouldn’t their widows receive all of the entitlement dollars they invested in the system?
The National Education Association (NEA) states that nearly one-third of the nation’s education work force experiences some adverse effect from the GPO. The 1977 GPO legislation victimizes even greater numbers of lower-income women who spent years as nonprofessional government workers in the “non-Social Security” states like California, Illinois, Texas, Maine, Massachusetts, etc.
NEA research further indicates that most public employees affected by the GPO lose their entire spousal benefit despite the fact that their deceased husband or wife paid into Social Security for many years.
Troops serving during the Vietnam era certainly paid Social Security taxes while they risked their lives for the nation. If Geri received a $2,800 monthly teacher’s pension, the GPO formula would completely eliminate her widow’s benefit. Does the nation owe widows like Geri less or more during their senior years? Historically, women have been disproportionately located in teaching and other public-sector jobs, so they bear an excessive burden from the GPO. Discussions about cutting, privatizing, raising the retirement age or repealing the GPO in Social Security have profound ramifications for the economic stability of American women. Social Security is, indeed, a women’s issue.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) strongly opposes attempts to undercut Social Security. All Americans, and especially women, must demand that Congress keep its hands off of Social Security.
Social Security is an “off-budget” trust fund that did not cause the federal deficit.
Social Security’s 76-year history has been a noble and virtuous experience for America. Its complex and harmonious components have performed well for most segments of our society. But Social Security remains an unfinished symphony for too many American women. Instead of planning to raid or violate Social Security, Congress must improve access to it for widows like Geri and ensure its availability for future generations – and make sure it’s fully funded.
Jackson is a retired educator and a member of the American Association of University Women; president emeritus of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators; a member of AFT-Retired, NJEA-Retired; the North JerseyNegro Business and Professional Women; the Plainfield League of Women