Still Working After 80 — Social Security And Me
by Ann Rogers
For the last twenty years, I have relied on my Social Security pension to pay the basics: electricity, water, phone, supplemental medical insurance (an absolute necessity) and reduced Real Estate Taxes for low income seniors. But because I unfortunately also need food, clothes, medicine, a car, gas, and car repairs, I still have to have a paying job. All the more so because as the cost of living skyrocketed over two decades, my Social Security did not.
Where did I go wrong? Why at 82, do I not have the means to spend my golden years traveling and living the good life?
It’s not like I was sitting around waiting for someone to hand me a living. I was the sole provider when my child-ren were growing up, before and after I became a single parent. This situation is not uncommon; it’s the way it is for many families, especially Black, Latino and Native American ones.
My need to keep working has to do with gender disparity and the basic unfairness of the profit system. During my early working years as a waitress, I got rock bottom “traditional” women’s pay. Then I went to work at the Sears Catalog Plant in Seattle at better wages. At first, employee retirement benefits went into a “profit sharing” plan paid in Sears stock. When stock values plummeted in the recession of the late ’70s (stop me if this sounds familiar), I lost a lot of my retirement. Only then did Sears start a pension fund. Then, in 1987, the company closed my plant, putting me and 500 others out of work.
At the age of 60, my prospects of getting a decent paying job were slim. My small Sears pension, unemployment compensation, and odd jobs had to last me till I could get Social Security. Even so, it was only manageable by cashing in what little I could get for the Sears stocks to pay off my home mortgage, car loan and credit card debt. And because I needed a lump sum, the IRS took almost as much as I got!
I was looking forward to collecting my Social Security benefits, thinking that would solve my financial woes. Unfortunately, the changes made to the calculation of benefits have not been to the advantage of retiring workers, especially women. In my case, the highest 30 years of my wages were averaged to figure my benefit. This included the paltry wages I made in the late ’50s.
Now wages are averaged over 35 years, and that is sure to include the low wages most people start out making. For many women, unaffordable childcare means they have to take time off work when their kids are young, and they don’t have 35 years’ worth of wage history. Guess what a bunch of “zero years” does to the benefit calculation!
I was lucky my parents could provide childcare when I needed it. Women’s lower earnings affect women of color the most, not just because we tend to make lower wages, but because more of us are single or heads of households. So we can’t get benefits based on a husband’s earnings. Of course, the fact that a wife’s benefit — half of her husband’s — is often larger than what she could get on her own earnings, in itself says a lot about gender inequity! Needless to say, my benefit was not the financial security I hoped it would be.
I still must work in order to live independently. But I am one of the lucky ones who are physically able to hold a steady job. And now the Experts spout rhetoric about Social Security going broke. The Bush administration idea of privatizing the system so workers have to invest their retirement in the stock market was scary at the time and even scarier now, after the collapse of banks and businesses.
People who know and tell the truth say that with even modest economic growth, the system should not face a shortfall until more than thirty years in the future. But if Social Security needs bolstering, there’s an easy fix. They could eliminate the cap on FICA taxes for high wages; that was already done for Medicare. The Social Security Administration’s chief actuary has said that lifting the cap would cover 93 percent of the projected shortfall in revenues for the next 75 years! Instead, we only hear talk of raising the number of work years that go into the benefit calculation to 38 or 40. That would hit women and low income workers the hardest.
The Social Security system is far from broken. But for some of us, women especially, it barely keeps us out of extreme poverty. It should be made more equitable. I can hear the right wing hollering against “socialism!” now. But that’s the point. Social Security isn’t broken, capitalism is. I hope we do put socialism into practice, and soon!
Ann Rogers is a Chippewa elder and former Teamsters Local 130 shop steward and contract negotiator. She can be contacted at email@example.com.