Debt deal may be unfair to women

Michelle Singletary
Columnist July 13, 2011

There’s one thing about the federal debt-ceiling talks that makes me hotter than the heat wave rolling through the East Coast.

“Everything has to be on the table” has become the mantra that is dictating the deficit-reduction discussions.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

But “everything” has a name and she is more likely to be a woman. She’s a senior citizen or a mother struggling to get by. Putting everything on the table, including reductions in social safety net programs, will disproportionately hurt women already struggling to make ends meet, says the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which comprises 240 groups representing more than 12 million women.

To persuade the Obama administration and Congress to clear from the table a budget deal that includes benefit reductions to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the council has launched a nationwide “Respect, Protect, Reject” campaign. The groups oppose increasing the retirement age above 67 or switching to a different formula to calculate the Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, which they contend would cut benefits.

“The kinds of cuts that are under discussion now in Washington are truly terrifying, particularly when you look at the effects that the austerity program that has already begun has had particularly on women,” said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security for the National Women’s Law Center, in a teleconference with several other female leaders, including Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).

In 2009, Social Security helped more than 14 million Americans 65 and older stay above the poverty line, according to research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Without access to Social Security, 58 percent of women and 48 percent of men 75 and older would be living below the poverty line.

Rather than put social programs on the table, go after the real causes of the budget deficit, said Susan Scanlan, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.

She listed “two unpaid-for wars, an unpaid-for prescription drug program, continued tax breaks for the richest Americans, and a debilitating recession that resulted in massive job loss and lost revenues to governments at all levels.”

Using the latest job figures, the National Women’s Law Center says women have 281,000 fewer jobs than two years ago when the recession officially ended. By comparison, men have gained 805,000 jobs.

Because men lost most of the jobs during the recession, you would expect them to have regained more than women during the recovery, Entmacher said. But women didn’t just gain fewer jobs, they went backward, she said. The center’s analysis found that men have regained 15 percent of their lost jobs, while women have gained no net jobs, losing an additional 13 percent of the jobs they lost during the recession.

“With women being left behind in the country’s anemic recovery, it’s unconscionable for leaders to slash programs that disproportionately employ women as well as disproportionately serve them,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.

Putting everything on the table concerns 67-year-old Margie Metzler, a California retiree who relies on $1,200 a month in Social Security for most of her income. She’s been struggling since she was laid off at 62 from her job in the nonprofit sector. She’s gone through her savings. Switching to another cost-of-living formula for Social Security could reduce benefits for current and future beneficiaries.

“I spend 100 percent of what is coming in,” said Metzler, a board member with the Older Women’s League who participated in the teleconference. “We promised our seniors a threshold of protection in their old age. And if we say, ‘Well that’s as negotiable as anything else,’ then we are not a society that keeps our promises.”

Entmacher said that when people say everything has to be on the table, she really does envision a table. At it are an elderly woman who depends entirely on Social Security, a single mother and various families who haven’t seen wage increases in years, as well as a hedge fund manager, a chief operating officer and an oil company executive. And then we say to them all, “ante up.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Entmacher said. “All the gains in incomes over the past few decades have gone to people at the top. We should look at those who have the greatest ability to pay and who have reaped most of the gains in the last few decades.”

I asked Metzler how she felt about people who argue that they have worked hard for what they’ve obtained, so why should their tax dollars go to help people like her?

“From my standpoint, how could I feel anything but terrified?” Metzler said.

We have to do something about our national deficit. That means tough decisions and compromising. But the poorest among us can least afford to be at this table.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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