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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

The Faces of Social Security

by Heather Gain, Communications Intern, and Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

Social Security reform is an issue of special importance to women. And not just retired womenóbut also young women, disabled women, lesbians, household workers and others. NOW offers here the real stories of three women whose lives have been affected by the program. These are only three of the many faces of Social Security, and the National NOW Times will continue to bring you more women's stories in upcoming issues.

Tobi Hale

Tobi Hale's story is an eye-opener. Early in January, the Social Security Administration informed Hale that she was going to lose her Medicaid coverage at the end of that month. As a woman with a disability — she is legally blind and uses a wheelchair — Hale depends on Social Security for her income, a meager $581 a month. Because she is currently ill, she also depends on Medicaid to help pay her $4,000 a month medication bills. Tobi Hale, longtime activist and member of NOW's National Board

Although she was working fewer than 10 hours a week, that income plus her Social Security check made Hale ineligible for Medicaid. But as a part-time employee, she had no access to health insurance through work.

Fortunately, Hale is a longtime activist (and a member of NOW's National Board), so she knew just what to do. In addition to contacting a Social Security caseworker to lobby on her behalf, Hale called her governor, her state senator and her state representative.

"Without my medication, I will die," Hale told them. Colorado State Sen. Stan Matsunaka immediately urged her to apply for the Home Based Community Services program, which will allow her to get back on Medicaid. As we went to print, a relieved Hale had just learned that she qualified for the program.

"I don't know how anyone works their way through this system without help," said Hale. But she does credit Social Security with making it possible for her to go back to school and get her graduate degree in Social Work, focusing on Gerontology.

Hale points out that if Social Security is privatized, people with disabilities will suffer greatly, as they have the highest unemployment rate of any group — somewhere between 72 and 90 percent. "You have to work in order to put money into a privatized system," she says. Although privatization is not the answer, Hale stresses that the system does need fixing — as illustrated by her recent crisis.

Geraldine Miller

Geraldine Miller, NOW activist and founder of the Household Technicians Union As a woman who worked for decades as a domestic worker, 81-year-old Geraldine Miller understands the necessity of Social Security. Since she was a teenager, Miller has worked in hotels, restaurants and kitchens, but primarily in private homes. She was young when she began working and the Social Security program was still in its infancy. Miller was not aware that she could put away for retirement until years later and so today her Social Security check isn't as large as it should be. Despite its size, this Bronx, N.Y., resident relies on the check's arrival each month. It helps her with necessities like medical costs and prescriptions.

"It's not a lot," says Miller, "but it pays the rent."

The discrepancy in check amounts between those who registered immediately and those who did not propelled Miller to found the Household Technicians Union, which works to ensure equal rights for women who work mainly in "under-the-table" jobs, such as maids, nannies, and cooks. The union also pressures employers to comply with the Federal Minimum Wage Act of 1972.

Miller strongly urges household workers, especially immigrants, to know their rights. She ran a workshop for Project Open Doors that brought to light the similarities and shared concerns of homemakers and household workers. By breaking down the barriers of class and race, Miller sought to show participants that all of them needed to have access to the same benefits in old age. Similarly, information and education must be more readily available, proclaims Miller, to avoid the tragedy of elderly women in poverty.

As past president of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women and also the first chair of NOW's Women of Color Task Force, Miller is no stranger to activism. One of her many concerns is the enforcement of Social Security laws for all employees, in and out of the home. Miller has recently been appointed Chair of NOW's national committee on Eliminating Racism.

Tyra Brown

Tyra Brown, Social Security advocateTyra Brown's life was deeply touched by Social Security, although she is nowhere near retirement. Many people think of Social Security as providing benefits only to those 65 years of age and older, but benefits are also paid to the families of deceased workers. Since the death of a primary breadwinner can devastate the surviving family, Social Security offers Survivor's Insurance.

When Brown was fifteen, her mother and sole provider died of heart failure. This tragic loss put her in her grandmother's care and money became tight. Brown's mother, who had earned a middle-class income, had paid into Social Security for her retirement. However, she died before she became eligible to enjoy those benefits. The money she paid in, however, did not go to waste. Instead, her Social Security became her daughter's security.

Brown and her grandmother received Social Security Survivor's Insurance checks each month, as well as her grandmother's retirement benefit checks.

"We could count on that income every month, and without it, we wouldn't have made it," said Brown. These two incomes also enabled her to attend college.

Brown graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and now spends much of her time organizing to protect the future of Social Security. The Oklahoma native has spoken before the President as well as the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Ways and Means. She is aware that her story is one of a million similar stories of young people across the nation, and she struggles to secure and strengthen social security for generations to come.

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