The Breakfast Table

Social Security


Already I’m nostalgic for 1998. I’m looking at a New York Times article from Dec. 8, a time when impeachment admittedly was well along its way to clouding the sky but there was still some sunlight shining through on other issues. An accompanying photograph shows Clinton shaking hands at a conference, and the caption announces the topic is Social Security. Sigh.

On that bygone day, the Times published a good summary article by Richard Stevenson and a nifty chart briefly showing the pros and cons of privatization of Social Security through individual investment accounts and of other reform options. The chart was a solid intro to an urgent topic now upstaged by preparations for the “Trial of the Century.”

Back in 1999, we need aggressive press coverage of Social Security reform because: a) we need public debate and action about Social Security and b) when Congress finally does return to the subject, there’s going to be a lot of bullshit rhetoric. Watch out for the word “privatization”–it sounds so benign and entrepreneurial. But what it likely means is that the guaranteed benefit would drop much lower, and individuals would play the market with the rest of their Social Security money. That’s a very risky idea for a large segment of the population. Take just one significant slice as an example–women.

Consider that the average amount of Social Security received by retired female workers in the mid-1990s was only about $6,450 per year. For women over 65 the average annual income (the total from all sources including Social Security, pensions, dividends, and earnings) was shockingly low–approximately $11,380 (for elderly men the average total income was about $20,500). Older women rely heavily on Social Security. That guaranteed $6, 450 is not something to play with.

An additional problem is that, with privatization, individuals would probably be able to tap their Social Security money earlier for emergencies. Think of the not-uncommon scenario where a divorced woman with two kids is receiving little or no child support and is covering the bills on a waitress’s salary, with no health insurance. The press was fond of talking abstractly about “the waitress mom” during the last election. Well, time to see some discussion in the media about what might happen to that waitress mom’s Social Security when her kids have health emergencies.

Back to you, girlfriend,