- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, in her April 25 column ("Social Security for her"), says her conservative women's group "aims to give voice to the concerns of American women" in the Social Security debate. Sadly, she is misguided on how best to accomplish this. Worse, she is leading women down a slippery slope in giving them a voice that supports what at best can be called a Wall Street analyst's dream come true.

For nearly two decades, The National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), the umbrella coalition for the nation's major women's organizations, has convened the leadership of more than 150 nonpartisan, nonprofit women's groups who represent millions of women. NCWO's Women & Social Security Project was formed in 1998 and launched a national education campaign to highlight Social Security's special importance to women and to examine the impact of privatization proposals on them.

As the heart of our nation's social insurance program, Social Security provides universal coverage for workers and their families through pooling of resources that guarantees benefits to all. Social Security is vital for women because 60 percent of Social Security beneficiaries are women and the major source of retirement income for a majority of them is Social Security.

Can it be better? You bet. On this, Ms. Pfotenhauer and NCWO agree. But NCWO supports changes to the current system that would make it better. What we don't support is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Most Americans agree that today's senior citizens who are dependent on Social Security barely make it with a typical annual benefit of under $10,000. Nevertheless, women depend on Social Security's guaranteed current law benefits that are adjusted for inflation and cannot be outlived. Indeed, without Social Security, over half of elderly women would be poor (the federal poverty level for a single older individual was $8,494 a year in 2001).

Last week, Rep. Robert T. Matsui, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, offered an amendment to strengthen Social Security for widows. Although defeated along party lines, the amendment sought to improve widows' benefits by raising them to 75 percent of what the couple had been receiving prior to the husband's death. Raising survivors' benefits, from the current 50-67 percent, would have aided an estimated 4-5 million elderly survivors. The amendment also included language from a bipartisan bill (H.R. 4069) that would aid approximately 120,000 disabled and elderly widows and divorced retirees. Mr. Matsui has said he will reintroduced these provisions as a free-standing bill soon.

Ms. Pfotenhauer is right when she cites NCWO's clear opposition to privatization. We are opposed to any proposal for individual accounts that would reduce benefits for women and/or rely on non-existent trillions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury. And she should be, too. Supporters of privatization are offering us a "free lunch" proposing voluntary participation in individual accounts with no reduction in benefits.

If this sounds too good to be true, it's because it is. You can't take a trillion dollars away from the current system, while still paying current retirees' benefits, without sharp reductions in these benefits. It's that simple: The money can't be spent twice. Like all free lunches, it's highly suspect. Even supporters of personal accounts don't think they can fool the public on this one. Why else is Congress putting off debate on privatization until after the elections?

Had Ms. Pfotenhauer bothered to read NCWO's groundbreaking 1999 report, "Strengthening Social Security for Women," instead of merely criticizing it, she would have seen the menu of proposed benefit improvements, as well as our best estimates of the costs of these changes. In addition to increasing the benefit to survivors of married couples by raising the couple's combined benefits to 75 percent (the Matsui amendment), NCWO supports different ways for Social Security to more adequately compensate all women, whether married or not, for their unpaid care giving work.

Raising Social Security benefits for the lowest earners would help elderly single and divorced women who have a higher poverty rate than widows. Technical changes for divorced spouses and helping the poorest recipients by amending the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program should also be a priority. Finally, all proposals to reform Social Security should also ensure that Medicaid eligibility is not affected by any increase in Social Security benefits.

After reading Ms. Pfotenhauer's piece, one could easily get the wrong impression about Social Security's financial picture. After all, last year's so-called "modest" tax cut is twice the size of the entire future Social Security shortfall. NCWO believes that Social Security's long-term financing can be improved if prudent minor changes are enacted in the near future. Without any changes to the current system Social Security will pay current law benefits in full for nearly 40 more years. Even after 2041, Social Security will be able to meet 73 percent of current law benefits.

Just last month, women leaders from across the nation came to Washington to energize a pro-women's agenda. At the top of our list is ensuring that the social safety net remains intact especially Social Security. To this end, Ms. Pfotenhauer would do well to redirect her energies to her friends on Capitol Hill who are spending the Social Security surplus to fund tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich. The upcoming vote in the Senate on the permanent repeal of the estate tax is another opportunity to save scarce resources to bolster Social Security. It is both unjust and unfair to spend the limited Social Security surplus on more tax cuts to benefit the wealthiest Americans. Making these tax cuts permanent would be devastating.

Ms. Pfotenhauer should stop pandering to the rich men on Wall Street who want our Social Security dollars to fund their risky investment practices and join the women in the mainstream who want to save Social Security benefits for elderly women. Come on over to our side, Nancy. Not only can we count, but we'd like to count you in.

Heidi Hartmann chairs the Task Force of Women and Social Security of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

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