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Posts Tagged ‘Social Security’

Would You Trust Henry Kissinger with Your Social Security?

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

Years ago a political scientist said that the mass media can’t influence what people think, but it can influence what people think about. Today it does both. If you’re a billionaire who wants to manipulate public opinion, that means you’ll keep feeding it stories that serve your ideology and self-interest.

Hedge fund billionaire Peter G. “Pete” Peterson is a master of the art. At a time when 47 million Americans (including one child in five) live in poverty, when our national infrastructure is collapsing and the middle class dream is dying before our eyes, he’s managed to convince a few voters, a lot of politicians, and far too many major-media journalists that our most urgent problem is … federal deficit spending.

They don’t just want you to be concerned about it. They want you to be afraid.

The front for this effort (one of many assembled by the Peterson Foundation) is called “The Coalition for Fiscal and National Security,” and they’ve assembled a list of prominent figures to promote it. Let us consider the message, and the messengers.


The group’s mantra is a statement that retired Admiral Mike Mullen first made when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”

That’s a surprisingly bold and naive proclamation, especially from someone of Mullen’s stature. It takes a lot of imagination, and some highly implausible assumptions, to believe that our national security is really endangered by federal deficits.

The Peterson Foundation provides both, of course. Unfortunately its manipulated facts and figures fail to make their case, even when taken at face value.

What would a rational list of nonmilitary risks look like? Climate change would almost certainly top the list. Many military experts already consider it a grave national security threat. A bipartisan group of 48 defense leaders and experts – including, perhaps paradoxically, some of the Peterson group’s signatories – signed a full-page ad let year entitled “Republicans and Democrats Agree: U.S. Security Demands Global Climate Action.”

One defense expert called climate change “the mother of all risks.”

It’s easy to see why. Rising sea levels threaten many of our coastal towns and cities, including most of lower Manhattan. Millions of Americans are likely to become internal refugees in their own country, posing the risk of widespread lawlessness and instability.

Climate change is expected to trigger a number of future conflicts around the globe, as nations and peoples compete for increasingly scarce resources. Some scientists believe that climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Wealth inequality also belongs near the top of the list. Extreme inequality makes a society unstable. Today millions are trapped in poverty while the20 richest Americans own more wealth than half the entire nation – some 150 million people in 57 million households.

Persistent poverty plagues minority communities, while the 400 richest Americans own more than the nation’s entire African-American population (plus one-third of this nation’s Latinos). There are growing rates of suicide, opioid overdose, and deaths from alcoholism among lower-income whites. Economist Anne Case calls them “deaths of despair.”

What will happen if the middle class continues to collapse, if poverty remains inescapable for generation after generation, if most people face working years filled with dashed hopes and retirements plagued by penury?

Despair can turn to rage, sometimes without warning.

That’s one reason why it’s especially imprudent for the corporate-friendly “Coalition” to target Social Security, along with the rest of the social safety net. Sure, they try to sound reasonable. They even mention cutting the military budget (although they tip their hand by emphasizing military health care and payroll expenses, rather than cost overruns or expensive weapons systems.)

But they always turn to social programs, sometimes with not-so-subtle transitions like this: “Defense spending is the largest single category of discretionary spending… In 2015, it was second only to Social Security spending.”

See what they did there?

There’s little chance of getting tax increases or cuts in military spending through this Congress or the next, and they know it. The drumbeat for lower deficits only serves to undermine the social safety net – when we should be spending more to rebuild our economy.


When a group uses prominent people to promote its arguments, it’s prudent to ask: Who are these people? Can we trust them? Are they wise and just?

Well, there’s former Michael Hayden, who headed both the NSA and the CIA. History will remember Hayden for giving sworn testimony to Congress that contained numerous falsehoods, as documented by the Senate Subcommittee on Intelligence. (Experts say it’s very difficult to convict someone for lying to Congress, but it’s still wrong — and illegal.)

Hayden signed off on detainee abuses that he argues were not technically“torture.” He insists other torturers have done much worse, in case that’s your moral standard.

Madeleine Albright’s on the list too. She was widely criticized for answering “we think the price is worth it” when asked about the Iraqi children who died as the result of sanctions against Iraq.

But the most prominent name on the list is Henry Kissinger’s. Is Kissinger credible?  It’s true that he’s popular among media and political elites, but that sad fact only serves to remind us that some memories are short – and that, for some people, the ties of social status outweigh those of morality and decency.

It was Kissinger who reportedly fed confidential information to then-candidate Richard Nixon – information that was used to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks, extracting a massive toll in human lives just to boost Nixon’s election chances.

It was Kissinger who delivered the illegal order to bomb Cambodia and Laos. More bomb material rained down on these tiny nations than was used in all of World War II. His actions cost countless lives and gave rise to the mad, massacring Pol Pot regime.

It was Kissinger who ignored the pleadings of a US diplomat and gave the green light to Pakistani atrocities in what is now Bangladesh, praisingPakistan’s dictator for his “delicacy and tact” while ridiculing those who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”

“Yahya hasn’t had so much fun since the last Hindu massacre!” Kissinger said of Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan. (The government of Bangladesh reported that 3,000,000 people died in the “fun.”)

Kissinger supported the violent overthrow of the Chilean government by a right-wing dictator. Kissinger gave the go-ahead to the Indonesian government’s massacre of from 100,000 to 230,000 people in East Timor. (Estimates vary.) Kissinger’s other offenses and blunders are too numerous to list here.

His intellect is overrated, too. Princeton professor Gary Bass writes that “Kissinger’s policies were not only morally flawed but also disastrous as Cold War strategy.”

Would you trust this man with your Social Security? Do you think he’d make wise and humane decisions about our society’s priorities?


Sure, there are some decent people on the Coalition list. But they’ve been misled by tricksters and lulled by the groupthink that comes from decades inside a bubble of insular privilege.

And what a bubble it is. It’s a glassy gold bubble that filters out every color of the rainbow except its own, bathing its occupants in a warm autumn-colored glow as strangers shiver in the cold blue daylight outside. The bubble speaks with the voice of false authority. It’s a floating oracle with the soul of a confidence man.

But the crowd is thinning out. There are real threats to face outside the bubble: poverty, inequality, a crumbling infrastructure, a dying planet. It’s time for the bubble to disappear, as all bubbles eventually do, by blowing away on the wind or vanishing with a soft pop in the light of the midday sun.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on June 16, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

Social Security’s Enemies Are Down – But They’re Not Out

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Not so long ago, Social Security was endangered by a “bipartisan” consensus that sought to cut its benefits – already lower than those of comparable countries – as part of a “grand bargain.” President Obama even put a slow-motion benefit cut into one of his proposed budgets, in the form of a reduction in cost-of-living increases.

And nobody talked much about raising taxes on the rich. That, they said, was “politically impossible.”

Things have changed dramatically. The Democratic president, virtually all of his party’s senators, and both its presidential candidates now say they want to expand benefits. An idea that was widely dismissed when it was proposed by Bernie Sanders is now the Democratic position. The “bipartisan” anti-Social Security army seems to be in ragged retreat, its campfires dying and its tents torn down.

But this isn’t over.

The president’s declaration is a major win for the left, as Nancy J. Altman and The Huffington Post political team explain. But the counterattack has begun.

It’s true that the anti-Social Security contingent seemed to be struggling last month at its annual convocation, the austerity-pushing “Fiscal Summit” funded by right-wing hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson. Peterson’s been financing this movement for decades, aiding friendly politicians in both parties and backing a variety of messaging vehicles designed to disparage government’s role in the social contract.

(They include “The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget,” “Fix the Debt,” and my personal favorite, “Budgetball.”)

Peterson’s Fiscal Summits were once all the rage with luminaries on both sides of the aisle. Former President Bill Clinton’s been a frequent attendee. (Not this year, though. Wonder why?)

This year’s event wasn’t the same. Sure, some politicians showed up. But a melancholy torpor seemed to hang in the air. It didn’t get much coverage (Clinton’s absence undoubtedly hurt). Three or four bored reporters munched on sandwiches in the press room while being barraged by rock music like they were Manuel Noriega under siege, except that the song choices were relentlessly upbeat – “Beautiful Day” by U2, “Gimme Some Lovin” by the Spencer Davis Group, “Eye of the Tiger” by whoever sang that, “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After.

(I don’t think anyone at the Summit vetted that last song’s lyrics, which include the line “Tax the rich, feed the poor/until there ain’t no rich no more.”)

But Social Security’s adversaries are still out there. Republicans still embrace the economic austerity that has wounded Europe and hamstrung our own recovery. Democrats at the Summit kowtowed to their hosts’ fiscal fixations. And the media personalities in attendance (were they paid?) offered chipper testimonials – pitches, really – for deficit reduction.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain,” said Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin, “everybody talks about the deficit but nobody does anything about it.”

“You’re somebody who’s trying to do something about the debt and not just talk about it,” CNN’s Dana Bash said to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) before praising the “Simpson-Bowles” deficit reduction plan – an impractical, unpopular and ultimately failed austerity proposal from former Sen. Alan Simpson and Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles – as a “solution.”

CNBC’s John Harwood recounted a “depressing” lunch with a former aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell he approvingly quoted as saying, “We can’t (fix) Social Security” – presumably a euphemism for “cut” – until “the baby boomers retire and the crisis is upon us.”

All of this fiscal folklore has been heavily promoted by Peterson-backed outfits.

Later, predictably, The Washington Post editorial board slammed the president. Democrats want “fatter checks for the elderly,” wrote the editors, for whom increasing a grandmother’s slender stipend is apparently a form of moral obesity.

The Post drew on the above-mentioned “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” and another Wall Street-funded group, “Third Way,” for discredited tropes like “the government spends six times as much as seniors as it does on children.” Statements like these are designed to fuel the notion of a “war between generations,” even though Social Security cuts would hurt younger people more.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in Washington still take these fictions seriously. Social Security’s adversaries are well-funded, their myths are deeply embedded in our political culture, and they’re not giving up.

Harwood, Bash, and other journalists in the Peterson umbra will keep reporting on these issues, skewing public perception.

If the Republicans win all three branches of government, Social Security will be in immediate mortal danger.

And while the rhetorical shift among Democrats is welcome, they’ll need to be held to it. Hillary Clinton’s website says she would “expand Social Security for those who need it most and who are treated unfairly by the current system.”

That’s not enough, given the current retirement crisis. The Sanders proposal, which is detailed and covers everyone, must be written into the Democratic platform. And activists must send the message that there will be dire political consequences if it isn’t honored. Otherwise, a new “grand bargain” is still a very real possibility.

The Peterson crowd’s expressed concern about government debt rarely leads them to propose tax increases on the wealthy, and never with any conviction. They’re cutters, not builders – even when it comes to Social Security, which is forbidden by law from adding to that debt. If they were real budget hawks they might consider that fiscal proposal from Ten Years After:

“Tax the rich, feed the poor …”

Say what you will about its politics, but it wouldn’t add a penny to the deficit.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on June 7, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

New Report: 90 Percent of the World’s Domestic Workers Lack Social Security Protection

Friday, April 15th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanNinety percent—or 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, some 80 percent of whom are women—labor without any basic social security protections, says a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Developing countries have the biggest gaps in coverage but wealthier nations are not immune to this problem.

According to the report, 60 percent of domestic workers in Italy are outside the country’s social security system, as are 30 percent of domestic workers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domestic workers—housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, child and elder care providers among others—are not covered by many of the basic workplace protections that most employees take for granted.

“I would like that we stop being invisible to society,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a housekeeper in Chicago. Domestic workers “want to be respected and valued,” says Magdelena Zylinska, a domestic worker, also in Chicago who’s been cleaning homes since 1997. “That’s so little really, just to be treated with respect,” says Zylinska. “Everybody who works wants that. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”

Historically, most U.S. domestic workers have been excluded from labor protections granted other workers, explains Zylinska. But “we are normal people with children and financial responsibilities,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s important that people recognize us as workers in general and give us more support and rights just as regular workers.”

Both Bolaños and Zylinska are working with groups that are part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance for passage of an Illinois state law that would extend basic employment protections to domestic workers. Among these provisions are written contracts, schedules that specify work hours, meal and other breaks and coverage by state laws that guarantee minimum wages, one day of rest in seven and those of the Illinois Human Rights Act.

If passed, the Illinois bill—known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the seventh such U.S. state bill. So far only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have comparable laws.

Nationally, U.S. domestic workers are covered by Social Security but not by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Nor do they receive benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And until 1974, when Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover domestic workers, U.S. workers employed directly by households were without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2013, a new Department of Labor rule revised regulations to better cover domestic caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but leaves U.S. domestic workers without many basic employment protections.

“We have no basic benefits like sick leave,” explains Sally Richmond, who has worked for years providing child care and is a community organizer with the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).

Poor working conditions, long hours and low wages

As described by the ILO report, “Domestic work has traditionally been characterized by poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and little or no social protection. In other words, domestic workers are exposed to conditions that are far from the concept of decent work promoted by the ILO. This situation largely reflects the low social and economic value societies usually place on this activity. This is often reflected by the absence of adequate laws and the lack of effective enforcement of those that do exist.”

While domestic work is some of the lowest paid and least protected in the world—in some places earning no more than half the average wage—so many people do this work that, according to the ILO, “if all domestic workers worked in one country, that country would be the world’s tenth largest employer.” Domestic workers also have some of the longest and most unpredictable work hours of any employees.

Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domestic workers are women, makes this workforce socially and economically vulnerable to additional discrimination, says the ILO. Extending basic social protections to domestic workers is key to fighting poverty and promoting gender equality, said Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch in a statement. The ILO report also points out that many of the estimated 55 million women engaged in domestic work around the world—a number that is likely an undercount—are also migrants, which adds to their vulnerability to discrimination and unfair labor practices.

“Most of us are immigrants and come from really poor countries,” says Zylinska. There are many domestic workers that are supporting “not only their families here but also families in their [home] countries.” Language differences and concerns about immigration status add to the daily employment uncertainties for many domestic workers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.

ILO agreement on domestic workers rights—not ratified by the U.S.

As part of its efforts to improve working conditions and labor protections for domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted what’s called the Domestic Workers Convention that requires countries that ratify the agreement to ensure that domestic workers labor rights are no “less favorable” than those of other workers—including with respect to social security protection and maternity protections. The Convention outlines basic labor rights to include working hours, wage, occupational health and safety, child and migrant workers protections. It also underlines the importance of organizations that represent both domestic workers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. The United States is not among them.

Unlike those employed by more formal workplaces—those outside private homes—around the world, domestic workers typically lack comparable enforceable policies on working hours, occupational health and safety protections, maternity leave, workplace inspections and access to information on labor rights—including the right to organize and form unions.

Many domestic workers “are afraid to complain for fear of losing their job,” says Richmond. “My hope is for this work to be professionalized,” she says. Working with the Union Latina, helps “teach us how we can protect ourselves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. “We don’t have contracts, today I have a job, tomorrow I don’t have a job. It’s a very unregulated business,” explains Zylniska.

But all these basic workplace and labor protections are feasible and affordable, says the ILO report—even for middle and low-income countries. Yet while it documents increasing social security coverage for domestic workers worldwide, these policies often exclude migrant workers who make up at least one-sixth of this global workforce. While fixing these problems can’t be accomplished by one single policy model, said senior ILO economist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a statement, “mandatory coverage (instead of voluntary coverage) is a crucial element for achieving adequate and effective coverage under any system.”

While U.S. law provides protections for domestic worker not guaranteed in other countries, this household-based workforce still lacks coverage provided to other American employees. And given the nature of the domestic workplace ensuring change even when policies shift can be difficult.

“The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been really aware that conditions for domestic workers don’t automatically change when a bill is signed into law,” says National Domestic Workers Alliance campaign director, Andrea Mercado. To make these changes, “It’s going to require a culture shift and a public conversation around domestic work and care work and why we should value it,” she says. “That’s kind of our struggle,” says Zylinska.

The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights now has 21 Senate and 33 House sponsors. A spokesperson for lead sponsor state Senator Ira Silverstein said the bill is expected to be reintroduced this month and could move swiftly toward a vote.

This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Read our lips: Americans want to expand Social Security - not to raise the retirement age

Sunday, October 25th, 2015


The recent presidential debates reminds us that Democrats and Republicans are polar opposites when it comes to Social Security.

While many of the Democratic candidates want to bolster the program and increase benefits, GOP candidates Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have all called for cutting Social Security’s modest benefits by raising the retirement age.

Raising the retirement age may not be a big deal for the wealthy Americans who finance political campaigns or even politicians proposing these cuts. However, it would have a devastating impact on Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, including Patricia Walker of Tampa, Fla.

“For me as a home care worker, I couldn’t work until 70. I already have problems with my knees. I’m already trying to make it,” says Walker, who’s in her early 50s.

Although she works long hours, Walker’s low wages prevent her from being able to purchase a car let alone save money for her golden years. Social Security will be her only plan for retirement.

If Walker and other working Americans apply for Social Security’s retirement benefits before they reach the full retirement age, their benefits will be permanently reduced. For example, when someone retires at age 62, their benefit would be about 25 percent lower than it would be if they waited until they reach full retirement age.

This is a Social Security cut Republican presidential contenders seemingly want to avoid discussing while on the campaign trail.

These same candidates also seem to be ignoring the voices of voters who want lawmakers to expand Social Security; not cut its already modest benefits.

A 2014 poll from the National Academy of Social Insurance found 69 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of independent voters support Social Security and they don’t mind paying higher taxes to preserve benefits for future generations. The poll also found 71 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of independent voters oppose raising the full retirement age to 70.

Republicans calling for raising the retirement age may be willing to ignore the fact that income levels and life-expectancy rates remain stagnant for the poor as well as the needs of nurses, home care providers, construction workers and others with strenuous jobs that would suffer under their proposal.

One thing any presidential candidate can’t ignore is the retirement crisis looming over the United States. Our country’s next president must be willing to put ideology aside and focus on policies to deliver retirement security to more workers. That includes increasing Social Security benefits, especially for low- and middle-income workers.

Wonder what your full retirement age will be or how your monthly benefits may be reduced if you retire before your full retirement age? Click here.

This article was originally printed on SEIU in October, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

A New Approach (and Attitude) Needed for Social Security

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

seiu-org-logoA recent study from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) finds while the retirement crisis affects all, it is particularly dire for households of color. Fewer than half of blacks and Latino workers have retirement plans on the job, leaving the vast majority with no retirement savings and more likely to depend on Social Security’s modest benefits.

What’s equally as disturbing as the findings of this study is the position toward Social Security taken by Charles Blahous, research fellow with the Hoover Institution and one of the trustees appointed to oversee Social Security and Medicare.

In an email interview with the Washington Post, Blahous argued that Social Security has the perverse effect of discouraging cash-strapped people from making a priority of retirement savings.

“A true answer to the problem would mean decreasing our society’s dependence on income transfer programs as a source of retirement income, and increasing the net amount of saving that we do,” he said.

As someone appointed to oversee Social Security, he should know this program remains the foundation of retirement security for almost all Americans as it is the only portable defined benefit retirement plan available to virtually all workers. The problem with Social Security is that alone it doesn’t provide retirees with adequate income as the program was never meant to be the sole source of retirement savings.

More than 65 percent of single and married seniors depended on Social Security for the majority of their income in 2010. We can only expect our reliance on this program to increase as private employers freeze pension plans and cut retirement contributions of all types.

According to the National Academy of Social Insurance, 87 percent of Americans? including 71 percent of Republicans, 97 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of independents? agree it is critical to preserve Social Security for future generations even if it means increasing taxes paid by wealthier Americans. It’s time for lawmakers and those who help to shape policies to listen to their constituencies who want an opportunity to retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work and playing by the rules.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on January 6, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Eileen Kirlin, SEIU Executive Vice President

Detroit firefighters and police face pension cuts with no safety net. Not even Social Security.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Laura ClawsonLosing a pension you’ve worked years to earn is a nightmare scenario, one that can change a comfortable, secure retirement into one filled with worries and penny-pinching as Social Security goes from being part of your retirement income to all of it. For public workers in many places, including firefighters and police in Detroit, it’s a doomsday scenario, because they don’t get Social Security at all.

About 30 percent of public employees nationwide aren’t covered by Social Security; government workers weren’t covered by the program at its inception and while many have been moved under its umbrella over the years, some cities, towns, and states continue to run pension plans that don’t include Social Security. Detroit’s firefighters and police are in that group:

Of the nearly 21,000 city retirees now collecting pensions, 9,017 retired police officers, firefighters or their surviving spouses don’t get Social Security, or about 44 percent of all city pensioners.

For those who have worked in other jobs for long enough to qualify for Social Security, those benefits are reduced by a percentage of their Detroit pension. That’s not a lavish pension, by the way: The average annual police pension in Detroit is $30,000, compared with $58,000 in Los Angeles, $47,000 in Dallas, and $42,000 in Kansas City. And public workers’ pensions, unlike the pensions of many private sector workers, aren’t insured by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, meaning if they lose their Detroit pensions, that’s it, there’s no safety net to catch them.

What we’re talking about here are workers who spent decades earning less than they might have elsewhere in exchange for the promise of a secure—though not lavish—retirement. And now they face the very real threat of being left with a small fraction of what they earned and need to live on. They kept their promises to the city of Detroit. It must keep its promises to them.

This article originally posted on Daily Kos Labor on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos

Krugman on ‘Sequester of Fools’

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Image: Mike HallPaul Krugman has a pretty straightforward plan to deal with the sequester that’s due to hit March 1. The New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist says, “The right policy would be to forget about the whole thing.”

He bases his proposal on what Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen said in her keynote address to the Trans-Atlantic Agenda for Shared Prosperity conference at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Fiscal austerity, such as the sequester and the latest doomsday alert from the Bowles-Simpson duo, is the enemy of real economic recovery. Writes Krugman:

America doesn’t face a deficit crisis, nor will it face such a crisis anytime soon. Meanwhile, we have a weak economy that is recovering far too slowly from the recession that began in 2007. And, as Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, recently emphasized, one main reason for the sluggish recovery is that government spending has been far weaker in this business cycle than in the past. We should be spending more, not less, until we’re close to full employment; the sequester is exactly what the doctor didn’t order.

Read his full column, including his take on Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, “the famous fomenters of fiscal fear.”

The arbitrary, across-the-board sequestration cuts in everything from mental health services to public safety kick in next Friday, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republican lawmakers say they are willing to toss 750,000 people out of work and cut vital lifeline government services to ring massive concessions in cuts from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Working families are calling on their elected representatives to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from benefits cuts, repeal the sequester and make sure corporations and the wealthiest 2% pay their fair share through closing tax loopholes.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on 2/22/2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Oh Great, More CEOs Telling Us We Need to Cut Social Security and Medicare Benefits

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Jackie TortoraAs if we didn’t already have enough on our plates (having to fend off attacks from the “Fix the Debt” CEOs), now there’s another group of CEOs, the Business Roundtable, telling us we need to “modernize,” a.k.a. cut, Social Security and Medicare benefits by raising the eligibility ages and reducing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). How helpful. 

R.J. Eskow took on the Business Roundtable in his latest blog, How Extreme Is the Business Roundtable? Check Out Its Attack on the Elderly.

Yesterday, Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment Corp. and head of the Roundtable’s “health and retirement committee,” told Politico that “[a]ny effort to address the country’s fiscal problems has to have as a centerpiece reform of its principal entitlement programs.”

Added Loveman: “None of us [CEOs]—very few of us—are ideologically driven. We’re pragmatists….”

“I am encouraged by how relatively easy these remedies really are,” said Loveman. “… (and) they have a tremendously sanguine effect on the government’s fiscal health.”

That’s true. It is pretty easy. Just kick in a few rich people’s doors, seize their belongings…oh, wait. That’s the other extremist scenario. Loveman’s is the one where people who have paid for Social Security and Medicare coverage throughout their working lives must give some of their benefits up—for him and his friends.

These CEOs are the same people cutting back on pensions and retiree health benefits. Now they want working people to have even more economic insecurity in retirement by cutting the few benefits that keep seniors afloat. 

Raising the Social Security retirement age is especially damaging. Not only is it a benefit cut, workers 55 and older have the longest bouts of unemployment. The average time unemployed is nearly a year (51.3 weeks, compared to 34.3 weeks for workers younger than 55).  

Eskow points out that 8.9% of American seniors already live in poverty, while 5.4% are on the edge. The average Social Security recipient collects $1,164 per month.

Anyone who claims they can cut those benefits by 3%—and use those meager benefits to end elder poverty—is selling snake oil.

Snake oil indeed. There’s nothing more cynical than calling devastating cuts to vital lifelines “modernization proposals.” Working people know the difference. 

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on 1/17/2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO. Interviewing union musicians was her introduction to the labor movement. Her first job after graduating college was in Syracuse, New York, where she wrote and edited the International Musician, the monthly magazine for the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Protecting Social Security and Medicare from benefit cuts brought me to Washington, D.C., where she spent two years as a new media coordinator at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. She came to the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2012, just in time to re-elect President Barack Obama. When she’s not tweeting about America’s unions, it’s likely she’s watching Syracuse basketball and football. 

Social Security COLA at Risk with Chained CPI Proposals

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Today’s announcement that Social Security recipients will receive a modest increase (1.7%) in their cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) was a small but welcome boost for seniors who are seeing prices increase on necessities, from health care to food. However, even this modest increase could be jeopardized if proposals floating around in Washington to “tweak” the current COLA formula by tying it to the so-called “chained CPI” are passed.

Senior advocates and retirement experts say the current formula, the CPI-W, is already inadequate. Higher health care costs and expenses seniors face are not accurately addressed in the CPI-W.

The Alliance for Retired Americans Executive Director Edward Coyle says:

The current formula, used for today’s announcement, already badly understates the inflation experienced by seniors and disabled Americans, who make up the majority of Social Security beneficiaries. However, the change some in Congress want would exacerbate this flaw in a way that is particularly damaging for women who, because of their greater life expectancy, receive benefits over a longer period of time.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare says:

The typical 65-year-old, who filed for benefits at 62, would lose about $130 per year in benefits. By the time that senior reaches 95, the annual benefit cut will be almost $1,400, which is a 9.2 percent cut.

The AFL-CIO, along with the Strengthen Social Security coalition, sent a letter to Congress today expressing its opposition to the chained CPI:

The purpose of an inflation adjustment is to ensure that the value of Social Security and other modest but vital benefits does not erode over time. The proposal to switch to the chained CPI would, over time, slash the benefits of both current and future beneficiaries. Specifically, it would cut the basic benefit—currently averaging a modest $13,500 for all beneficiaries—and break the bipartisan promise not to cut the benefits of current seniors.

Although some in Congress may say this is a modest tweak or a change to more accurately reflect inflation, nothing could be further from the truth.

A chained CPI means cuts are larger the longer you receive benefits.

Says the Strengthen Social Security coalition:

One of the most problematic aspects of the chained CPI is that the cuts are larger the longer you receive benefits – meaning that the chained CPI would disproportionately hurt many women, veterans, people with disabilities, and others. For example, veterans wounded in combat and others disabled at young ages would be disproportionately hurt. Seniors, especially women, who live long lives would also be hurt disproportionately.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council supports an across-the-board increase in Social Security benefits.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 16, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora recently joined the AFL-CIO as the blog/social Media editor. Before that, she was a Social Security and Medicare advocate for a national seniors’ organization.

Where Did All Our Pensions Go?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

A total of 84,350 pension plans have vanished since 1985. This figure shocked Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Donald L. Barlett and James W. Steele, who just released their latest book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream.” Their chapter on retirement chronicles the heist of the American dream’s secure retirement by the financial elite and is a very important section of the book, says Steele, who spoke with the AFL-CIO about the retirement crisis. Steele says there is another number we should pay attention to: $17,686. That’s the median value of 401(k) accounts in 2011. For most working people, the amount in their 401(k) account would pay them less than $80 a month for life.

“What’s happening with retirement is almost parallel to what you see happening in other parts of the economy,” says Steele.

The elite has its agenda to eliminate pensions with the shift to 401(k)s, which cost companies less. Now, there’s a revenue stream for Wall Street and an obligation shift to people with little or no experience understanding how to deal with their own retirement issues….This is typical of all the other things the economy elite has been doing for decades with deregulation, unrestricted free trade and tax cuts—these things are all related.

“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the amount of workers with access to pensions was significantly rising,” says Steele. “We fully underestimated the speed in which the downturn would occu, and how Congress went along and encouraged it.”

Barlett and Steele write that the shift from defined-benefit pension plans to 401(k)s began in the 1980s. Companies realized 401(k)s would substantially reduce corporate costs. Workers were told that pensions no longer made sense and were outdated since people moved around from job to job. The 401(k) was marketed as more “portable.”

Steele says 401(k)s were engineered by corporations as another way for the wealthy executives to set aside money. They were never intended to be a principal retirement plan, only a supplement.

“Once corporate America got on to this, the idea took root,” says Steele. “The entire obligation shifted to the employees.”

Congress ignored the concerns raised by trade unions and other pension rights organizations. And the consequences are dire for middle- and lower-income workers.

“This is so typical of what has been happening over the last two to three decades,” says Steele. “This is the slow, steady erosion of economic security Americans had (or thought they had)….Now economic pundits, corporate folks and Wall Street people are saying people just have to work longer, in part because retirement plans now in place will not provide much security to people as they get older.”

Barlett and Steele feature stories of average people who did everything right (saved, worked hard) but are still living on the edge of poverty because of policies that enhance the rich at the expense of everyone else.

Over and over again, people thought they had something good. They were working hard and then, through no fault of their own, lost it all. Most people we talked to in the book are employed.

People thought it was something they had done to lose their job or benefits….They didn’t realize it was part of a broader pattern. There are great swaths of working people who are affected and we think it’s our fault. For most of these people, it’s not their fault, it’s just the way policy has been organized. Systematically dismantling pensions and retirement is the perfect example.

With the decline of pensions, it’s even more important to strengthen, not cut, Social Security benefits. Although the country dodged a bullet in 2005, when Bush’s plan for Social Security privatization fizzled, Steele says we still need to be vigilant to protect our benefits from the Wall Street casino.

Don and I make this point that the 2008 recession wouldn’t look a whole lot different from the Great Depression if we didn’t have Social Security and Medicare because there was no safety net then.

The economic elite, says Steele, attack Social Security because it’s a large pool of money for Wall Street to play with.

Nobody should kid themselves that they’re not going to come back and try to implement some parts of that [privatization]….The amount of money at stake is too good and that’s all they care about—access to that money, not American workers.

You can purchase “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora recently joined the AFL-CIO as the blog/social Media editor. Before that, she was a Social Security and Medicare advocate for a national seniors’ organization.

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