Transcript: Press briefing Q&A on the National Committee to Protect Social Security & Medicare’s proposals to improve Social Security benefits for women

Press briefing Q&A on the National Committee to Protect Social Security & Medicare’s proposals to improve Social Security benefits for women (May 11, 2012): 

Max Richtman, President of the National Committee to Protect Social Security & Medicare:

“I wanted to just make a quick comment. Terry [O’Neill] talked about politicians not being straight with the American people when they talk about Social Security being broke, bankrupt, busted, there’s no money there.

“It’s not just the politicians. It’s the media. The media parrots this over and over again.

“And a recent incident was the trustee’s report just a few weeks ago. Despite the fact that – even Commissioner [Michael] Astrue tried desperately to make the point in the press conference that the program is not broke, is not bankrupt. But I was listening to the radio that afternoon and a commentator said to an audience here in Washington, ‘If you are 45-years-old, Social Security won’t be there.’ That’s a lie. So we need to deal not just with the politicians who are misleading the American public but the media.

“And the way we plan to do it is by joining forces, working with our activists around the country, with all of the chapters that NOW has. With our influence that we have here in Washington through Dr. Hartmann and Terry and the National Committee, we are going to try our level best to take these recommendations and turn them into some legislative proposals. We’ve begun talking to some members of the House, the Senate that are committed. Some of the ones that you’ve mentioned, Terry, that are committed to preserving, protecting, and improving these programs. And we are determined to succeed.

“And as you know, there’s been so much talk about cutting Social Security and some may say, ‘Well, how can you be talking about improving benefits at a time when practically everybody is talking about the need to cut Social Security. We’ve got to start somewhere. And we’ve got a group of organizations that I think can move the ball forward on this.

“So I’ll take any questions and please address them to…Yes…”

[Question asked off-camera & inaudible]

Max Richtman:

“The question is shouldn’t we be raising benefits rather than talking about cutting them. Who would like to address that?”

Dr. Heidi Hartmann, President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research:

“Well, we do have a proposal to raise benefits for everyone for about $55 a month. So that’s a fairly decent amount. And also that increase in the special minimum almost doubles it so that for very low-wage earners that would help them.

“I think, you know, many of us do think of, you know, $2,000 that’s only $24,000 a years. Surely every person needs that. But the federal poverty level is a lot lower especially for a single adult. So right now, unfortunately, minimum benefits don’t keep people above poverty. But in our proposal, that special minimum would be above poverty and also that $55 a month for absolutely every recipient would go a long way. It might not bring everyone to $2,000 a month but it would certainly help a lot.”

Max Richtman:

“Joe, Dr. Hartmann talked in her presentation about the COLA, the cost of living adjustment. One way to raise the benefit is to have a COLA adjustment that, as she said, accurately reflects what inflation is doing – not to a wage earner but to someone who depends on Social Security and has those kinds of higher medical expenses. So it’s something that the CPI-e – the consumer price index elderly – we’ve worked on it for a quite a few years and we hope we can get that put into law.”

Terry O’Neill, President of the National Organization for Women:

“Let me just add that the chained-CPI, which has been promoted as the CPI that should be used in calculating the Social Security COLA. Here’s how it would work. According to the National Women’s Law Center, by the time a woman reaches the age of 90, if we use the chained-CPI, her cost of living adjustment – there would be such a gap between her actual increases in her living expenses and her cost of living adjustment under Social Security that the gap would have amount to three weeks of groceries per month. And so that is one of the reasons why the chained-CPI is a non-starter and must be rejected out of hand.”


“I noted that the caregiver credits would do a lot in reducing the gender disparities between qualification for retirement benefits and the disparity in the actual benefits themselves. Would that also affect determination for disability eligibility? If not, is there a usefulness in pursuing policy that would reduce the disparity in qualifying for disability?”

Max Richtman:

“The question is how would caregiver credits work with disability.”

Dr. Heidi Hartmann:

“I think we do envision that that would be part of your earnings records and therefore it would enable you to qualify for disability benefits as well. There might have to be some special rules that one might want to say, you know, some earnings history but we also have that one that would help homemakers who become disabled with no earnings record at all. So I think both proposals would improve women’s ability to get disability or any adult who has done caregiving, male or female.”


“You mentioned increasing the child benefit to go up to age 22, and you mentioned that for disabled workers and survivors. What about retired workers who have young children? Would that apply to them also?”

Dr. Heidi Hartmann:

“We did exclude retired workers who have college-aged children. I think it was more about the cost of the benefit package, but obviously in the former era, the adult children of retired workers were included as well. So that’s just really a spending decision – whether we want to spend our money that way as opposed to other things like the special minimum. So we have to set some priorities.”


“How will three organizations be working together to get these proposals enacted?”

Max Richtman:

“The question from Facebook is how will the organizations work together to get these proposals enacted. I think we discussed that. Our grassroots efforts, I think, now has what 250 some chapters? 350 some chapters around the country. We’ve got over 3 million members around the country and supporters. And we’re going to mobilize. We may not be able to get it started in Washington, but we can get it started outside of the Beltway and at the same time develop legislation, legislative proposals, turning these recommendations into bills that can then be moved through the Congress. It’s not going to happen obviously before the election. I don’t think a whole lot is going to happen before the election. But we need to create momentum and that’s what we’re committed to doing.”

Dr. Carroll Estes, Chairwoman of the Board of Directors at the National Committee to Protect Social Security & Medicare:

“I would just add that we will be working with the National Women’s Law Center and the Older Women’s League, wonderful organizations who have been advocates for decades on these kinds of issues and will be partners with us in going forward. It’s going to take all of us, and particularly those in states and communities who are members of these national and local affiliate organizations.”

Dr. Heidi Hartmann:

“I’ll also mention the [inaudible]Community Change will be working with the women’s organizations on a grassroots campaign as well. And the labor movement – AFL-CIO passed a resolution at their recent meeting that it’s time to increase benefits in Social Security because of the near-depression-like recession. In fact, I hear Paul Krugman referred to the recovery period as a depression. So we had the recession and now we’re in a depressed recovery period. But we are recovering and so I think we can look for good times ahead. But I would think that this severe economic downturn will have a lasting effect, and that is one reason to increase benefits for everyone and that’s a position that the AFL-CIO has taken. So there are many, many activist groups out there that will be working on these kinds of proposals.”

Terry O’Neill:

“I think one of the things that’s most exciting about this campaign to me is that so many of the activists that I talk to when I travel around the country, you know, are bombarded – we are saturated in this country with  the messages that we’ve got to cut, cut, cut social spending programs, we’ve got to cut Social Security, that Social Security is in crisis and is going broke.

“The people that I talk to they know that that’s not true but they don’t necessarily have, I guess I would say, the language and the empowerment to counter these false messages. And I think that our report is going to go a long way to counter these false messages because it’s not simply saying, ‘Oh no, that’s not true.’ It’s saying, and by the way proactively, ‘We can and must improve benefits. We’re in the 21st century. Benefits need to match 21st century realities. And here’s how we can do it. We can definitely pay for it and keep the Social Security system solvent for 75 years out.’

“So what’s really exciting to me is that we are moving forward with a proactive campaign to help us counter this bombardment of inaccurate, negative messages.”


“Well, there’s also the 35 to 40 million member AARP organization, which of course is a fairly important factor on this issue and on the Hill here. Isn’t it equally important to try to talk to their folks and get all of those 35 to 40 million members asking their leadership to take a more aggressive position in advocating for this update on Social Security benefits? Particularly since the majority of members as I understand of AARP are women?”

Max Richtman:

“Well, you’re absolutely right and we have been in close communication with AARP. In fact, the AARP has a representative here. I’m heartened by that. And just so you all know, when we leave here, we’re going to march back to our office, to our boardroom, many of the organizations that have been mentioned will join in a strategy session to launch this effort. This isn’t the end of a process. It’s really a big step developing this important paper but we’re going to get together at 11:30 and spend a couple of hours figuring out how we move forward…”


“I have a comment with NOW. I manage a political action committee, and we and many of our allies are asking questions about Social Security and their oppositions to cuts and their support for strengthening it so hopefully we’ll have more elected officials after the 2012 election who will help move this forward. Many of our allies are also asking those questions and hopefully we’ll be strengthening the incoming elected officials…”

Max Richtman:

“Great news. Thank you so much.”

Dr. Heidi Hartmann:

“I’d also like to recognize Congressman [Ted] Deutch (D-Fla.) as one of our champions. He has a representative here and we didn’t mention him earlier but he is one of several others we could mention as being just exactly the kind of candidate we’re looking for in terms of strong support for Social Security.”

Dr. Carroll Estes:

“And Sen. [Bernie] Sanders (I-Vt.) another incredible…”

Max Richtman:

“He’s the only one that’s on MSNBC more than you are, [Terry O’Neill].”



“Question coming in from Twitter. Have you discussed the proposals with the Obama administration and do you think that the administration would support them?”

Max Richtman:

“We have discussed some of the proposals at a meeting just a few days ago with the Office of Public Engagement, and we’ll be talking in about a week with those involved in the Obama re-election campaign.

“So let me just close by one of the comments Dr. Hartmann made about a pay-for. There’s always that question, ‘How do you pay for these improvements?’  And she mentioned lifting the cap. A lot of us in this room we probably know that FICA tax is only applied to now – it goes up a little bit every year – to the first $110,600 in wages. And by lifting that cap, and Congressman Ted Deutch has been very active in that effort, by lifting that cap you can bring ia lot of revenue into the program.

“But around the country, there are a lot of people that don’t even know there’s a cap. I have participated in hundreds of town hall meetings with our members and other seniors around the country and when I mention the cap, many of times they don’t even know what I’m talking about because they’ve never made anything close to $110,600 a year. In fact, they describe it, they characterize the cap as a loophole. So I think when people realize that there is a cap, they’ll acknowledge the fact that it could be lifted, raised, maybe eliminated and it would be fair and it would solve a lot of the shortfall of Social Security and provide revenue for these enhanced benefits.

“Thank you so much everybody for coming today.”




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