THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
|For Immediate Release|| ||October 27, 1998|
REMARKS AT ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION
ON WOMEN AND RETIREMENT SECURITY
The East Room
2:30 P.M. EST
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of thePresident Iwant to welcome all of you. Please be seated.
I want to acknowledge members of the President's Cabinet and teamhere:the Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman; the Deputy Secretary of Labor, KittyHiggins; the Director of Office of Personnel Management, Janice Lachance;theChair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Janet Yellen; the Director oftheNational Economic Council, Gene Sperling; and the Deputy Director, SallyKatzen;also the Deputy Social Security Commissioner, Jane Ross; and the Deputy OMBDirector, Sylvia Mathews. And we're pleased to be joined by CongressmanBenCardin and also Betty Freidan and other distinguished guests who arepresentwith us today. We're very grateful to all of you for being here.
And in particular we are focusing today on what to do to strengthenSocial Security for the 21st century and to strengthen it especially forthemillions of American women who depend on it and who depend on it more thanmen.
We would like to say a special word of thanks to those who arejoiningus from around the country by way of satellite here today. I guess that'sthesatellite hook-up there. We welcome people from Boston, New York,Philadelphia,Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Denver, Seattle, Birmingham, andRichmond, California. We're honored that you're here. And, incidentally,wehad first hoped to hold this important roundtable last week. And as youmayhave noticed and you may remember, President Clinton had a sleepless nightforabout 40 hours there with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman YasserArafatand their delegations. They were putting the finishing touches on thatagreement that takes such an important new step towards peace in the MiddleEast. And because of that this was rescheduled.
Mr. President, I have a feeling that not only is everybody hereunderstanding of that, but, again, congratulations and thank you for thatimportant agreement. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So we're picking up today where we left offback aweek ago. And it reminds me of how many important things have taken placerighthere in this room. Nearly a month ago I was proud to stand here in thisroomwith President Clinton for the announcement that America had posted itsfirstbudget surplus since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And at that point, andactually, long before that surplus materialized, it seemed like everybodyhad adifferent idea about what should be done with the budget surplus.
But President Clinton ended that debate with fourmemorable words in his State of the Union address at the beginning ofthis year -- save Social Security first. That expression hasforestalled the spending or wasting or use in any way of that budgetsurplus until we can save Social Security first. It would have beeneasy to join in with those who had risky budget-busting tax schemesor some other idea for using that money. But for the generation ofAmericans who saved Private Ryan, President Clinton committed us tosaving Social Security first. And that's what we're going to do withthe budget surplus.
That leadership couldn't have come at a better time,because over the next decade projections show more than $1.5 trillionin surpluses for Social Security. But consider this: 75 millionbaby boomers are going to be retiring over the next 15 to 20 years.Today there are more than 3 people working for each Social Securitybeneficiary, and by the year 2030 there will be only 2 people workingfor each Social Security beneficiary. That's just the fundamentalfact of life that we have to adjust to. And it constitutes a seriouschallenge. By reserving the surplus until we fix Social Security, wecan meet that challenge in a way that preserves the dignity of ourseniors in retirement.
We all know that it's a lifeline for millions ofAmericans and especially women. And older women, on average, getmore than half of their income from Social Security. For 25 percentof elderly women, a Social Security check is the only income theyreceive.
And of course, this is not just a story of numbers andstatistics, it is also one of faces and families. And I want toacknowledge and introduce to you the people who will be joining us onthis panel today: Bernice Myer, from Seattle. Bernice works witholder Americans and disable seniors, helping them with personal care,shopping and cleaning. She expects to receive a small pension from aprevious job when she retires in 15 years, but her current jobdoesn't have a pension plan. She's depending on Social Security tobe a major part of her retirement.
We're also joined by Molly Lozoff from Miami Beach.Molly is a retired real estate broker and a 77-year-old widow whoreceives a Social Security check each month. When she was 35, herhusband had an incapacitating stroke which left him unable to speakfor the rest of his life. She became his legal guardian and in theprocess of getting her own life together, she discovered that therewere programs that provide assistance for the minor children ofdisable parents -- government programs. She believes that theassistance that she received back then enabled her children to becomethe successful adults that they are today.
Also with us today is Wilma Haga from my home state ofTennessee. She's from Bristol, the birthplace of country music --where the Carter family made their first recording, Mr. President.(Laughter.) And Wilma is a 76-year-old retired cafeteria worker witha small pension. Eight years ago her husband died, and she receiveshis Social Security check each month. Wilma says that she could notsurvive without Social Security and would do anything to help peopleunderstand how important it is to women like her. And there are lotsof them.
We're also joined by Lucy Sanchez from right here inWashington, D.C. And over the course of 8 months her husband hadheart surgery twice. To care for her husband, Lucy was able to useour Family and Medical Leave law. Today Mrs. Sanchez says, "If I hadto go to work I would have been useless. Family and Medical Leaveallowed me to do what I had to do because, no matter what, familycomes first." And you're going to see how that ties in to this eventhere today in just a minute.
Now, finally, we are joined by Tyra Brown, a 20-year-oldpsychology major at Howard University, originally from Oklahoma City. Tyra is an honor student, a Ronald McNair scholar, and an AmeriCorpsmember. Her mother passed away when Tyra was only 15 years old.Thanks to Social Security, Tyra was able to receive Social Securitysurvivors' benefits until the age of 18.
The message of these stories is clear: StrengtheningSocial Security is not just a fiscal responsibility, it is aprofoundly moral responsibility. It is about preserving our oldestand most cherished values.
Nobody understands that better than President BillClinton. For decades now, few elected officials have been willing totake on this important challenge. Everybody here has heard SocialSecurity referred to as the third rail -- people were afraid to touchit. Well, President Clinton believes that it's so important toAmerica's future we can't afford not to take it on. And actually, ifyou study these numbers and statistics, you come away immediatelywith the conclusion the sooner the better, because the sooner we dotake it on, the easier it will be to fix it in the right way.
His leadership is making an enormous difference for ourseniors and for all generations. Ladies and gentlemen, it is mygreat pleasure and honor to present our President, Bill Clinton.(Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.Welcome to the White House. I want to thank the Vice President, themembers of the administration, Congressman Cardin, all the panelistswho are here, the satellite audience at the 12 other sites across ourcountry. I'd like to say a special word of appreciation and welcometo Betty Freidan, who has written with such insight and appreciationfor the challenges women face as they grow older.
We're here to talk about the special impact of thechallenge to Social Security on the women of the United States. Iwould like to put it in, if I might, a larger context. Six yearsago, when the Vice President and I came here, we brought a new visionof government against a backdrop of a $290 billion deficit and thekind of problem we're here to talk about today that we knew waslooming in the future. We believed that we could give the Americanpeople a government that would live within its means, but at the sametime invest in and empower our people.
It led to an array of new policies in education and theeconomy, the budget, the environment, in health care, in crime,welfare reform. Indeed, it led to the very effort to reinventgovernment, to use the Vice President's phrase, and the great effortthat he made in that regard. But over the last six years we havebeen more active, among other things, in family matters and healthmatters, and a whole range of domestic areas, while giving theAmerican people the smallest federal establishment since PresidentKennedy was here.
And the results, I think, have been quite good for ourpeople, in terms of prosperity, opportunity is abundant, communitiesare stronger, families are more secure. This year, all year long, Ihave told the American people and done my best to persuade theCongress that it is terribly important to build on this prosperityand its newfound confidence to meet the remaining challenges thiscountry faces on the edge of a new century -- particularly, andperhaps most important, the need to save Social Security and toprepare for the retirement of the baby boomers.
On December 8th and 9th we will hold the first everWhite House Conference on Social Security, with a goal of paving theway toward a truly bipartisan national solution early next year.Social Security, as many of you know from your own experience, and asall our panelists will be able to discuss in one way or the other, ismore than a monthly check or an ID number. It represents a sacredtrust among the generations. It represents a trust not only betweengrandparents, parents and children, those in retirement and thosethat work, but also the able-bodied and those who are disabled. Itis our obligation to one another and it reflects our deepest valuesas Americans. And it must maintain a rock-solid guarantee.
We have a great opportunity to save Social Security. Asall of you know, just this month we closed the books on our firstbalanced budget and surplus in 29 years. It is the product ofhardworking Americans who drive the most powerful economic engine ourcountry has had in a generation; the product of hard choices bylawmakers who put our nation's long-term economic interest very oftenabove their own short-term political interest. It is an achievementthat all Americans can be proud of.
But we have to ask ourselves to what end has this beendone. Of course, balancing the budget is essential for our ownprosperity in this time of intense global competition. But it alsogives us a chance to do something meaningful for future generationsby strengthening Social Security. And doing that will help to keepour economy sound and help to keep our budget balanced, as we honorour duty to our parents and our children.
As the Vice President said, soon there will be many moreolder Americans. I hope that he and I will be among them.(Laughter.) Two of the 75 million baby boomers who will be retiringover the next 30 years. By the year 2013, what Social Security takesin will no longer be enough to fund what it pays out. And then we'llhave to dip into the trust fund as provided by law. But by 2032, asthis chart on the left makes clear, the trust fund itself will beempty and the money Social Security takes in will soon be only enoughto pay 72 percent of benefits.
Now, that's the big reason I wanted to reserve thesurplus until we decide what to do about Social Security. EveryAmerican must have retirement security in the sunset years. We planfor it, count on it, should be able to rely on it. That holds truefor women, as well as men. But in the case of women, Social Securityis especially important. On average, women live longer than men;women make up 60 percent of all elderly recipients of Social Security-- 72 recipients over the age of 85, as you can see here.
For elderly women, Social Security makes up more thanhalf their income. And for many it is literally all that standsbetween them and the ravages of poverty. You can see what thepoverty rate is for elderly women -- it's 13.1 percent with SocialSecurity; without it, it would be over 50 percent. Study after studyshows us that women face greater economic challenges in retirementthan men do, for three reasons.
First, women live longer. A woman 65 years of age has alife expectancy of 85 years. A man 65 years of age has a lifeexpectancy of 81 years. Second, for comparable hours of work, womenstill have lower lifetime earnings than men, although we're workingon that. Third, women reach retirement with smaller pensions andother assets than men do.
Now, Social Security has a number of features to helpwomen meet these challenges. And we have done a lot of work over thelast six years to try to help make it easier for people to take outtheir own pensions and to make it more attractive for smallbusinesses to help to provide pensions for their employees, whichcould have a disproportionate impact, positive impact for women inthe years ahead. But the hard fact remains that too many retiredwomen, after providing for their families, are having troubleproviding for themselves.
Now, we have worked these last six years to expandpension coverage, to make the pensions more secure, to simplify themanagement of pension plans. We've worked for the economicempowerment of women, to end wage discrimination and strengthenenforcement of the Equal Pay Act. But we must do more until womenearn $1 for every $1 men earn for the same work; and today we're onlythree-quarters of the way there. We must work harder to give retiredwomen the security they deserve that they could not get forthemselves in the years they were working.
Today, I am announcing two concrete steps we must take.First, I propose that workers who take time off under the Family andMedical Leave Act should be able to count that time toward retirementplan vesting and eligibility requirements. Sometimes the few monthsspent at home with a child mean the difference between pensionbenefits and no pension benefits. That is precisely the wrongmessage to send to people who are trying to balance work and family.
Millions and millions of people have now taken advantageof the Family Leave Act when a family member was desperately ill or ababy was born. None of them should have lost time for retirementvesting and eligibility benefits.
Second, I am proposing that families be given the choiceto receive less of their pension when both spouses are living,leaving more for the surviving spouse if the breadwinner dies. Thatshould help keep elderly widows out of poverty in their twilightyears. And the poverty rate for single women, for elderly widows ismuch higher -- almost -- about 40 percent higher than that 13 percentfigure there.
These proposals build on the work of Congressman DavidPrice of North Carolina and Senator Barbara Boxer and Senator CarolMoseley-Braun. They will make a difference for our mothers, ourwives, our sisters and some day for our daughters. But let meemphasize again the most important thing we can do for futuregenerations is to strengthen Social Security overall.
When I said in my State of the Union address I wouldreject any attempt to spend any surplus until we save SocialSecurity, I knew the congressional majority wanted to drainbrilliance from the surplus even before it appeared on the books,much less having the ink dry. And not just this year, butpermanently. Now, I am not opposed to tax cuts, and my balancedbudget we have tax cuts for education, for child care, for theenvironment, and for making it easier for people to get pensions.I'm just opposed to using the surplus to fund tax cuts until we haveused all we need of it to save the Social Security system for the21st century.
The threat of a veto put a stop to that effort in thislast Congress. The next Congress will be the Congress I call uponactually to move to save Social Security for the 21st century. Itshould not be a partisan issue, and we should not have anotherpartisan fight to save the surplus until we reform Social Security.
But recently, Republican leaders are still saying thesurplus should go to fund tax cuts first, and the Senate MajorityLeader has suggested that he may not even be willing to work with meto save Social Security. Well, I hope that's just election seasonrhetoric. After all, they were willing to work with the insurancelobbyists to kill the patients' bill of rights. (Laughter.) Andthen they worked with the tobacco companies to kill our teen smokingbill to protect our children from the dangers of tobacco. And theywere happy to work with the special interest who were determined tokill campaign finance reform. I think the Senate Majority Leaderwill be able to find time to work with me to save Social Security.(Applause.) And I certainly hope so.
I say this partly with a smile on my face, but in deadseriousness. This issue will not have the kind of money behind itthat the tobacco interests can marshal or the health insurancecompanies can marshal against the patients' bill of rights. Andeverybody here with an opinion is going to have to give up a littleof it if we're going to make the right kind of decision to get there.This is the sort of decision that requires us to open our minds, openour eyes, open our ears, open our hearts, think about what Americawill be like 30 years from now, not just what it's like today, andimagine what it will be like when those of us who aren't retired willbe retired and our children will be raising our grandchildren --increasingly, when those of us who are retired will be looking afterour great-grandchildren as the life expectancy goes up and up.
This requires imagination. And it will be hard enoughunder the best of circumstances. It would be foolish to take thisprojected structural surplus that has been built in for six hardyears of effort and squander it, until we know what it will cost tohave a system that all Americans, without regard to party, can beproud of.
Now, this is an issue that offers us that kind of choicebetween progress and partisanship; moving forward, turning back;putting people over politics. In 11 days we will elect a Congressthat will determine the future of Social Security. We need one thatis 100 percent committed to saving Social Security first; to puttingthe long-term security of the American people -- our parents and ourchildren -- ahead of the short-term politics.
Now let me say I am eager to hear from our panelists. Ithink it's important to note on this day with this subject that oneof America's first great advocates for Social Security was theSecretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. As Secretary Herman would tellyou, Frances Perkins' name now graces the Department of Laborbuilding, just down Pennsylvania Avenue. She was the first woman tohold that office, or any other Cabinet office. Years later, on the25th anniversary of Social Security, Frances Perkins looked ahead andsaid this, "We will go forward into the future a stronger nationbecause of the fact that we have this basic rock of security underall our people."
That foundation, that rock, was laid by Frances Perkinsand Franklin Roosevelt. It is up to all of together, women and men,to make sure that rock will hold up all our people in the 21stcentury. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Molly, why don't you go first? Tell us your story andyour family's experience with Social Security.
MS. LOZOFF: Thank you, Mr. President.
Mr. President, Mr. Vice President and my fellowAmericans, the month was October and the year was 1955. I was ahappy 33-year-old mother of four wonderful children. I was astay-at-home mother. My husband was a successful realtor until thatfateful day, when he suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzedan unable to express himself for the remaining 14 years of his life.
After the initial shock, I realized that I had to getbusy and prepare myself for a career in order to be able to providefor my children and my disabled husband. It took about a year for meto become his legal guardian, handle his finances and earn my realestate license. During that time I learned of this new SocialSecurity program, which started in 1956 -- fortunately for me -- thatoffered disability insurance for minor children of a disabledprovider.
It was such a relief to know that my government wasgoing to help me survive this crisis. I believe to this day thatthis assistance enabled my children to confront this severe familyproblem and allowed them to become the fine, successful, caring humanbeings they are today. Without this assistance I could not havefared as well. It gave me the solid base that I needed to build myfamily's future.
Many years have passed, and at this time in my life Ifind that I am once again turning to my government for help throughthe Social Security program. The amount that I receive every monthenables me to provide for my basic living expenses. I know quite afew of my contemporaries in Florida who could not go on without theirSocial Security benefits. For some it's literally life-sustaining.
I'm so proud we have a President who feels a tug on hisheart for our plight, the plight of the elderly. We should stronglysupport his efforts to use some of the budget surplus to ensure thatthe Social Security system will survive and continue to help those inneed, well into the next millennium.
Thank you, Mr. President, we're so proud of you.(Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: I'd just like to say -- I think I speakfor everyone in this room, I guess some bad things happen toeverybody in life and a lot of us were probably feeling nonethelessthat we can't imagine how we would have dealt with what you haveobviously dealt with so magnificently. And if Social Securityhelped, then I think we can all be grateful that it did. We thankyou very much.
MS. LOZOFF: There are many people in my place, I know,today.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Mr. President, I refer to TyraBrown's story earlier. A lot of people commonly think of SocialSecurity as a retirement program. And they don't stop to think thatout of the 44 million Americans that receive Social Security,one-third of them are either survivors or disabled Americans. And alot of them, some 3.8 million beneficiaries, are children; and almost2 million of them are survivors of deceased parents.
Tyra, could you tell us your story, which represents astory that millions of others -- similar to that of millions of otherchildren.
MS. BROWN: Thank you, Mr. President, thank you, Mr.Vice President, for inviting me here today. It's good to know thatyou both are working hard and using your leadership to helpstrengthen Social Security.
My name is Tyra Brown, and I'm from Oklahoma City,Oklahoma. I'm currently a junior here at Howard University, ahistorically black university, in Washington, D.C. While in schoolI'm working with AmeriCorps as a jump-start member, and I work in aHead Start center tutoring preschool children who are struggling withliteracy skills and social development. I'm working toward the daywhen every child will enter prepared to succeed. After I earn myBachelor's Degree at Howard I plan to go on to graduate school andbecome a child psychologist.
I enjoy working with children who need a helping hand,and I believe that as an American family, we all need to do what wecan to help each other out. That is why I think Social Security isso important. It was there for me and I want it to be there in thefuture.
Most people think of Social Security as a retirementprogram, and it is. But what a lot of people don't know is that theSocial Security system also helps out millions of people like myselfwho are not retired. When I was 15, I had a terrible experience -- Ilost my mother to heart failure. And she worked very hard for me allof her life to provide for me, and after she passed my grandmotherbecame my legal guardian. And we received Social Security survivors'benefits to help us with some of the expenses.
It wasn't easy, but the Social Security really helped,and we could count on that income to be there every month. And Idon't think we could have made it otherwise without it. When my momwas alive she paid into the Social Security system, and although shewasn't able to get her retirement benefits, her Social Securitycontributions did help provide for me when I needed support. And I'mnot alone. There are millions of other survivors out there who counton Social Security every month.
Now as I'm beginning to think about my own future, Ithink about that guarantee. As I pay into Social Security I want tobe sure that it will be there for my retirement or in case of anyother tragic circumstances, guaranteed. I know that Social Securityneeds to be strengthened and I know that there has to be a way to doit to preserve that vital guarantee.
That's why, Mr. President, I was very glad to hear yourState of the Union address. We need to save Social Security first.It touches millions of lives in America. It has touched mine, and Ihope it will be strong for generations to come.
Thank you. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: We have heard from a student and aretiree. Now I'd like to call on someone who is working and planningfor retirement. And I'd like to mention something that I mentionedin my opening remarks, to which the Vice President also referred, andthat is that 60 percent of women workers, both part- and full-time,work at jobs that do not provide a pension. And as I said, we haveworked very hard on this for the last six years and we've tried tocome up with all kinds of proposals that would facilitate moreemployers providing pensions. And we will do more on that.
But meanwhile, we are where we are. Most Americans,even on Social Security, have some other source of income. But asyou see from the chart, over half the women in this country who areretired would be in poverty but for Social Security.
So I'd like for Bernice Myer to talk a little bit aboutthe challenges that she's facing and how she's trying to deal withthe prospect of retirement in the job that she's in.
MS. MYER: Thank you, Mr. President and Mr. VicePresident. I'm Bernice Myer. I'm a home care aide in Seattle,Washington. I'm 49 years old and have been working in serviceprofessions all of my life, all low paid. I feel that my work isvery valuable to the people I serve and to society as a whole. Ienjoy my work and have appreciated the opportunities I've had in eachposition.
One of my concerns as I grow older is where will -- alittle anxiety as to whether or not I will have money available formy living. I have no pension plan currently and live basicallypaycheck to paycheck. So I'm very dependent upon what will happen.I'm a member of the Office and Professional Employees Union and amworking to increase wages for home care aides. And we see someprogress, but it's slow and I doubt that the progress I would like tosee will happen in my lifetime. I think this important work and Ihope that eventually pay received will match the value of the work.
I want to thank the President and the Vice President forthis table conference, lifting up Social Security benefits. I'mdepending on them being there when I retire. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: One of the questions that we'll be askedto deal with, that most younger people who are interested in thiswill ask us to deal with, is the question of how much flexibilityindividual citizens should be given, and should there be alternativeinvestment strategies for the Social Security fund. There will be alot of these questions asked by young people, particularly.
And I think it is important to keep in mind that thereis always a balance between greater flexibility with the prospects ofgreater return on the trust fund and rock solid certainty. And,ironically, to people in Bernice's position, she'd actually be betteroff with both, because if you don't have a pension you need a higherincome out of Social Security, but if you don't have a pension youhave very little room for risk.
And there are -- if you think about it, our society fordecades, by and large, made a bargain with our critical serviceworkers -- the people that pick up our trash every day, or the policethat patrol our streets, or the teachers that teach our children --we say, okay, we'll get you the best pay we can, but even thoughyou'll never get rich, at least you'll have a pension as well asSocial Security.
Now there's been an explosion, in the last 10 yearsespecially, in America, of trying to provide more direct services topeople in-home. And most everybody believes that's a good thing --it promotes more independence, a greater sense of security of thepeople receiving the services. But there are huge numbers ofAmericans, like Bernice, out there who are performing criticalservices and taking our country in a direction most people who havestudied this believe we need to do more of.
And one day eventually they'll all be covered by somekind of an organizational system that will give them a decentretirement plan. But, meanwhile, you've got people like Bernice thatare out there doing things that we should have been doing as asociety long before, that are making this a better place, that don'tyet either have the bargaining power, the political support orwhatever necessary to have the pensions that they need -- either thator the economics of reimbursing for the service are not sufficient tosupport a pension. It is wrong to let people like her do all thiswork for us and not at least be able to rely on an adequate SocialSecurity system in retirement.
This is not an isolated story. This is a person whorepresents a growing number of Americans, not a shrinking number ofAmericans, doing something that most experts believe is making us abetter society.
I didn't want to take so much time, but I just thinkit's very important that you understand we picked these people --they're very compelling, I think, all of the panelists; but they'realso representative, not isolated cases. And I think it's importantto think about this when we make these plans for the future.(Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And, Mr. President, women are morelikely to be in that kind of situation. And I know you've beensaying this for a long time, and Ben Cardin has been saying it for along time, and others -- but I remember not too long back when I hadthe privilege of going to one of the forums on Social Security, thisone at Rhode Island. Carolyn Lukensmeyer (phonetic) and hercolleagues were hosting these events all over the country -- I thinkyou went to two or three of them.
And before that event, the women members of the caucusin the House and Senate all wrote a letter the me saying, we seeyou're going up there to Rhode Island, here's some facts we want youto keep in mind. I knew a lot of them, but I must say, they broughtout some facts that really deserve a lot more attention. Of course,all of them are on the table here today. But they have to do withthe fact that women do live longer and pay in less for a lot ofhistorical and life reasons.
Anyway, Wilma Haga here is representative of some peoplethat we have with us today who can sort of tell us about what itwould be like without it. I believe I mentioned she's from Bristol,Tennessee -- (laughter.)
MS. HAGA: You did.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wilma is 76 and her husband diedeight years ago. And Social Security has made a great bigdifference. In our part of the country, Wilma, and all over thecountry, really, it used to be that older widows were very likely tobe extremely poor. Many counties used to have what they calledpoorhouses -- before my time, but I've surely heard about them. Andwithout Social Security they've estimated that more than 60 percentof all older widows would be living in poverty.
Now, in your life you have not had to face thosecircumstances mainly because of Social Security. Tell us about that.
MS. HAGA: Okay. Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, I'mso happy to be here, and thank you for inviting me. I just feel realhonored and excited to be with you all today.
I am 76 years old and my husband, Alvin, and me had twosons -- Mike and Thomas. Al and I both had a high school education,but we weren't able to go to college. But we were absolutelydetermined that our two boys would go to college. For 28 years Iworked in the school cafeteria, and every week I'd put my paycheck inthe bank to take care of those boys' education. So my husband was anelectrician, but he also worked three or four other jobs so that wecould save all the money that we could for them.
I'm pleased that both of my sons did get a collegeeducation. Mike, in fact, is a seminary graduate. He works for you,Mr. President. (Laughter.) He works as an appointee at theDepartment of Agriculture and I'm so proud of him. And Thomas, myoldest son, has a very successful business in Texas, investmentbusiness. I'm proud of both of them.
As a widow on a modest income, I am keenly aware of theimportance of Social Security. When I retired, after almost 28years, I received a pension of only $200 a month from the schoolsystem. My monthly Social Security benefit totaled all of $300.Fortunately, my husband was still alive, and so I was not completelydependent on that $500 for all my income. I don't know how I wouldhave survived with that money alone.
My husband died in 1991, Mr. President and Mr. VicePresident. When that happened, my Social Security benefit wasreplaced by his. I got a raise of nearly $600 a month at a time thatI really needed it. Now, between my monthly Social Security check of$915 and my pension, I can live very well. In fact, I'm proud that Ican live independently and productively without any assistance fromeither one of my sons. There are millions of widows all over Americajust like me -- women who didn't earn all that much. But we now havethe blessing of knowing that our years of hard work paid off, both inthe success of our children and in having our government guaranteethat we will have a secure old age. I owe it to my sons and mygrandchildren to make sure that they have this same kind of security.
Again, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President, thank youso much for inviting me here today. Most importantly, thank you forproviding the leadership needed and for making the future of SocialSecurity a top priority. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: We asked Lucy Sanchez to come here totalk about the Family and Medical Leave Act and its effect on herlife, because I think it's important to point out that while both menand women are equally eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act,women are far more likely to take advantage of it -- and they shouldnot lose a year of eligibility, in terms of retirement vesting, whenthey do.
Keep in mind, if men and women all had retirementsystems in addition to Social Security, and they were more or lessequal, then our task of dealing with handling the baby boomers in theretirement system would be much, much easier. And so anything we cando now to equalize the impact of retirement earnings among similarlysituated people 20 years from now will change and make less difficultthe changes we are going to have to make anyway in the SocialSecurity system.
I think it's very important for everybody to kind ofkeep that in mind. So when I announced earlier today, a few momentsago, that we wanted people not to lose credit in retirement vestingwhen they access the Family and Medical Leave Act. I think it'simportant -- we have an illustration of why it's important to havethis law on the books and why it is inconsistent with being pro-workor pro-family to disallow retirement vesting just because people aretaking advantage of the law.
MS. SANCHEZ: Thank you, Mr. President and Mr. VicePresident, for inviting me to be here today. My experience is veryrecent. My husband went to walk the dogs one morning a year ago.Halfway home he suffered a dissection of his aorta -- that's a tear.He managed to make it home and climbed our front steps and opened thedoor. He collapsed against the door jam and called my name.Luckily, I was home.
He has a genetic condition called Marfan's Syndrome,which affects the body's connective tissue. The most seriousproblems associated with Marfan's Syndrome involve the cardiovascularsystem, and the aorta, which is the main artery carrying blood awayfrom the heart, is wider and more fragile than normal.
So instead of driving to work together that morning wedrove to the emergency room at the Washington Hospital Center here.We had the advantage of being pretty certain we knew what hadhappened, and we told the ER staff, and he was in surgery within anhour.
Meanwhile, I phoned his office and explained, and Iphoned my office and explained. I didn't go back to work for 90days. He actually had two surgeries that time and was in theintensive care unit for 11 days and in the hospital for three weeks.He came home sick, weak, confused, frightened, disoriented, unsteady.He didn't know when he was hungry. He didn't know when he needed tosleep. He didn't know what pills to take. So I could be there totake care of him. He recovered sufficiently to return to work inFebruary.
Then it happened again in May. Both times he neededaround-the-clock care from me. They say trouble comes in threes soin July, my 85-year-old mother landed in the hospital with majorhealth problems. And I was able to fly to Kentucky to be with her,to bring her home, and to make more permanent arrangements.
All of this was in the last 12 months, and who else isthere to care for your family but you. Because that's why we havefamilies, that's why we're part of families. We care for each other.And it is because of the Family and Medical Leave Act that I couldcare for my mother and my husband three different times this year.
I was out of work for 90 days, but I was not out of ajob. I knew my job would be there without having to ask my boss forspecial favors. I'm sure she would have given them, but I didn'thave to resort to that. I knew my seniority wouldn't be affected,and the fact that there was a plan in place to take care of life'sexigencies -- and life is nothing but unexpected -- was a greatrelief. When your life is in turmoil it is just enormouslycomforting to know that that is there.
I did wonder what would happen to employee pension plansthat I participate in -- would they continue, would they be affected,would they -- when I was actually lucky enough to be on annual leaveand sick leave, for most of the time my paycheck continued. Butshould I have had to take even more time, I didn't know whether thatwould negate the plan or interrupt it. I just didn't know what wouldhave happened if I hadn't been vested.
I believe that the Family Medical Leave Act is one ofthe finest pieces of legislation, a real contribution to thewell-being of the American family and especially women, because womenare the care-givers, as we all know.
We don't anticipate personal disasters. We tend tothink of all of us as invincible, especially our own families. Butit isn't always that way. This act is important to anyone, butespecially women. I don't believe that people who take familymedical leave should suffer pension loss, so I'm very happy to hearof this new plan.
Women usually put their needs after everyone else's.They tell us not to, but we do it anyway. And pension loss would putwomen who don't have much saved for the future at an even greaterdisadvantage.
I want to thank you, Mr. President and Mr. VicePresident, for your leadership in the enactment of Family MedicalLeave. I'm fortunate enough to work for an employer, the NationalAssociation of Social Workers, who strongly advocated for the Familyand Medical Leave Act. And as we all know, professional socialworkers routinely help people juggle family care and work issues.And may I also just add as an amendment that Frances Perkins was asocial worker. (Laughter.)
Eventually, the pieces of my life came back together.Everyone is well. And I would hope that no one would ever have touse Family and Medical Leave Act as I did, but regrettably, I knowbetter. Thank you. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you for sharing your storywith us. We can all see how recent it has been and how difficult ithas been for you, and you were very brave to come here and talk withus today. And we thank you for that very much.
We believe -- the Vice President and I and our spouses-- that the Family Leave law ought to be expanded some. (Applause.)We've tried in two Congresses to do that and haven't gotten very far.But we'll keep plugging away at it, because I think unless peoplehave been in this situation where they're afraid they're going tolose their job, or wreck their retirement because they're just doingwhat's necessary to hold their families together, they can't imagineit. And the law is actually a great -- it's actually good forbusinesses, too, because it doesn't put any employers at acompetitive disadvantage if it applies to all employers equally. Ittends to minimize the cost, the burden of risk, for that. And Ithank you very much for what you said.
But I think if we can take this whole family leave issueout of the whole -- just eliminate it in terms of whether yourretirement vests or not, I think it would be a good thing to do.Modest cost to the retirement systems, enormous benefit to thestability of families. So I thank you very, very much for that.
Well, I think our panelists have done a great job, and Iwant to thank them for that. (Applause.) Again, what we attemptedto do today was to show that on the present facts that women have adisproportionate interest the stability of the Social Security systemand in the adequacy of the benefit because they aredisproportionately likely to need it and more likely to have otherassets -- or less likely to have other assets.
We also wanted to emphasize the disability and childsurvivor benefits, which our panelists have so eloquently done. Noneof this, however, is an excuse to avoid making the hard decisions wehave to make because of the demographic changes that are occurring.It is just that we have to be mindful of it.
And what I'm hoping we did today was not to confuseanyone, that we've still got hard decisions to make, but to say thatwe ought to be especially sensitive to how these decisions affectwomen -- number one. And number two, we ought to be steely in ourdetermination not to let the surplus go until we figure how much costis involved and how we're going to balance all the difficult choicesthat have to be made and the risks that will have to be taken becausewe've got to maintain the social cohesion that Social Security hasgiven us.
Think about what we got out of Molly being able to liveher life under the circumstances and raise her children. Think aboutwhat society got out of that. Think about what society is going toget out of Tyra Brown because she was not abandoned when her mothersuddenly passed away at the age of 15. And we were all sitting therewatching her talk, just feeling better being Americans, weren't we,every one of us. Don't you think it was worth it to take care of her-- help her grandmother take care of her for three years? We all gotsomething out of that, and she's got 60 years or more of giving backto society, that we're all going to benefit from that.
So I think as we -- we identified, all of us, with eachone of these panelists as they talked to us about their lives. Andso I'll say again, none of this lets us off the hook for making thehard decisions, but it ought to make us determined to be moresensitive to how they affect women, number one; and determined not tolet the surplus go, in case we need it to fill in the patches of thedecisions to make sure that we can have more stories like this 10,20, 30, 40 years from now.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)