White House meeting focuses on Social Security Administration offers ways to improve benefits for women

October 28, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Wilma V. Haga, a 76-year-old widow, and Bernice Meyer, a home-care aide who will have no retirement check other than Social Security, asked President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore yesterday to keep the massive federal program sound and strong for future generations of beneficiaries.

With $915 a month in Social Security benefits, "I can live very well, independently and without assistance from my sons," Haga, from Bristol, Tenn., told an audience in the East Room at the White House.

Meyer, 49, from Seattle, makes $6.82 an hour and is beginning to worry about her retirement years.

"I basically live paycheck to paycheck," she said.

The two women joined Clinton and Gore for a panel discussion that highlighted the importance of Social Security to women, both for retirement and income protection.

Political message

The other message of the day from the Clinton administration was a political one -- that any changes to ensure Social Security's future solvency won't endanger the basic protections offered now by the program.

Yesterday's session, attended by a diverse audience representing groups active in retirement and women's issues, was the latest step in the administration's continuing campaign to make Social Security a high-profile issue.

"We must be steely in our determination" not to let the federal budget surplus be used for other purposes until Social Security's future is ensured, the president said.

The program is particularly important to women, who have lower incomes than men, are less likely to have pensions, and live longer.

"For elderly women, Social Security makes up half of their income, and for many it is all that stands between them and the ravages of poverty," Clinton noted.

Unmarried women over age 65 get 51 percent of their income from Social Security, compared with 39 percent for unmarried men, and 36 percent for married couples, according to a report compiled by the White House.

While Social Security is most widely known as a retirement program, a third of its monthly spending goes to disabled workers and their families, or survivors of deceased workers.

One of the panel members, Molly Lozoff of Miami, told of raising four children, with the financial help of Social Security, after her husband died.

And Tyra Brown, a Howard University student whose mother died when she was 15, recalled how she had been supported by her grandmother with the help of the survivor's benefits.

The session was broadcast to audiences in 10 cities.

No long-range plan yet

The Clinton administration has not offered a plan to deal with long-range financing of Social Security.

The president made two proposals at yesterday's meeting that he said could improve economic security for women.

The first would require private pension plans to expand the choices available to married couples.

Current pension plans provide a payment to a retired worker. If the worker dies first, the surviving spouse gets a payment equal to 50 percent of the benefit when the worker was alive.

The president wants legislation requiring businesses to offer an option giving the surviving spouse 75 percent of the benefit.

That would mean smaller payments for the couple when both are alive, but a larger check for the surviving spouse -- usually a widow because women typically live longer than men.

The president's second proposal would allow workers who take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to credit that time toward their eligibility for pension programs.

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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