Some of the most outrageous remarks in recent memory were made yesterday by former Senator Alan Simpson to the national leader of the Older Women’s League (OWL) regarding entitlement to Social Security. Specifically, Mr. Simpson took it upon himself to respond to OWL in a very insulting and derogatory manner that 350 million women were in essence “sponging off” Social Security.
We took more attention than most because we value the membership of OWL of California as a Health Access California member, and active participant on our board. The great Betty Perry of OWL is the immediate past president of our board, and a longtime friend and ally of our organization. An insult to her is an insult to us. But even if we look beyond Senator Simpson’s sexist and shameful language, was he right?
I actually have some knowledge about Social Security because I worked for that agency for 25 years. It is true that more women than men draw Social Security benefits, both presently and historically since the program was signed into law in 1935. This is because women live longer than men. However, it is entirely wrong to say that in some way women have weaseled their way into drawing a “free benefit” to which they are not entitled. Social Security is a social insurance program to which workers pay taxes in order to partially replace lost earnings due to retirement, disability, or death. So when anyone draws Social Security, the fact of their entitlement and the amount of their benefit is based on their wages, their spouse’s wages, or their parent’s wages. They have not snookered anyone into giving them “something for nothing.”
The same principle underlies Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors and people with disabilities. People pay Medicare taxes and when they reach age 65 or after they become too disabled to work, they become eligible for this national health care program. Both of these programs provide important support for a large segment of the American people and are part of the fabric of our life. In fact, both programs are National Treasures.
Unfortunately, what uninformed comments Mr. Simpson makes probably have more impact than your average ill-mannered lout. This is because he is the co-chair of the President’s Commission on the Deficit who will have a role in making recommendations to Congress and the President on reducing the deficit and these recomomendations are likely to encompass some reform of entitlements. His comments were beyond unfortunate and demeaning. They were wrong. It was especially ill-timed because they were made just as we celebrate the 90th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day which commemorates giving women the right to vote in 1920.
Mr. Simpson comments have caused quite a stir. Many people are calling for him to be removed from this role on the Deficit Commission. I am not sure what the President will do. However, I am convinced we should all reaffirm our support for organizations that work on behalf of women, seniors, people with disabilities, communities of color, labor, faith organizations, and children. We should demonstrate in the strongest way possible our support for these organizations, such as Older Women’s League, Health Access and our allies, and if we use Alan Simpson’s remarks as the catalyst for action, to support our legislative agenda and provide financial backing, so be it!