Privatizing Social Security would be a trick, not a treat.
Stores are already full of Halloween costumes and scary stuff for October 31. TV stations are gearing up for reruns of “Nightmare on Elm Street” and its many sequels, when Freddy Krueger will revisit us again and again.
But what really ought to terrify us—particularly if we’re older or have an older relative—is two days after Halloween, November 2. The Freddy Krueger of politics—privatizing Social Security—is b-a-a-a-c-k on the ballot. Well, not explicitly, just in the platforms of tea partiers and right-wing Republicans who once again want to “fix” the economy by jerking the safety net out from under our elders.
In a nutshell, these folks, like Senate candidates Joe “the government has stolen from me” Miller in Arkansas and Sharron Angle in Nevada, want to do away with Social Security as we know it and turn it over to the wizards on Wall Street. Right. Let them invest your hard-earned retirement money in the likes of Enron and Lehman Brothers.
In addition to the enormous gamble that trading the guaranteed returns of Social Security for the uncertainty of the stock market represents, the National Council of Women’s Organizations says privatizing the system would be especially bad for women. Whether we like it or not, women are still the majority of low-wage workers. Under these scary schemes, if you can’t afford stocks and brokerage fees while you’re working because there’s nothing left to invest after paying the rent and putting food on the table, well, too bad. You probably didn’t deserve a decent retirement anyway. Maybe your kids or rich uncle can kick in. (Without Social Security, an astonishing 59.2 percent of elderly women would live in poverty.)
Dr. Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, puts it this way: “Retirees will have much less security if they’re dependent on the vagaries of the private market. Even very safe investments have lost value in this major recession, because interest rates are so low. The insurance aspect of Social Security is its strength. We are insuring one another by pooling our funds and having the government do the housekeeping of getting benefits to people—with administrative costs below 1 percent. That simply can’t be matched anywhere in the private market. And our Social Security benefits are 100 percent protected against inflation–you can’t buy that in the market either.”
Speaking of insurance, women are the majority of caretakers when a spouse dies and leaves young children (who draw Social Security until they’re 18). Many single-parent families couldn’t make it without this—but nobody’s talking about what would happen to disability and survivor payments under a privatized system.
Widows and divorced women would lose too. Social Security now protects both groups with guaranteed benefits based on spousal earnings, even if they tended home and hearth while hubby went out to work.
(Ten years of marriage are required for divorced-spouse benefits; a widow continues to receive her husband’s benefit.) But the privatize-it-all candidates aren’t telling us just who, exactly, would own accounts invested in the stock market. Is it something to be fought over in a divorce, like the family dog or the television set? Could a husband die and leave the money to someone other than his wife?
Wall Street didn’t bring us to a national retirement system with guarantees we can’t outlive, payments that are indexed to inflation, and benefits that help the middle and lower earners more than the rich. That came to us courtesy of a forward-looking government, which created the largest benefit program in
America—one that takes less than 1 percent of the federal budget to administer.
So have fun on Halloween, but remember one thing while you’re getting your costume together: Those wolves in sheep’s clothing will be around until November 2. Let’s hope after that they’re gone for good.
Martha Burk is a political psychologist, women’s issues expert, and director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO).