Social Security has been the third rail of American politics - not to be touched by politicians who valued their political lives. It has been untouchable because it is the most successful anti-poverty program in America, and more important, because millions of voters from all walks of life receive Social Security checks every month, without fail.
One clearly emerging theme as George W. Bush's presidential campaign begins is that he is ``man enough'' to touch that third rail. He has proposed a plan that would encourage individuals to create personal accounts with part of each person's Social Security taxes. In doing so, he pleases the party faithful, who have been pushing for years to privatize Social Security. And he may score political points when he ridicules Al Gore for his more cautious approach. But regardless of whether his use of Social Security as an election-year campaign issue is a winner, Bush's macho stance to radically change Social Security is a real threat to women.
Bush's Social Security proposal sounds alluring, but unfortunately presents a triple whammy for women: (1) investing in the private sector tends to primarily benefit the highest earners, who tend to be men; (2) transition costs to a privatized system would necessitate budget cuts that would put holes in the safety net, which is desperately needed by individuals without pension plans, most of whom are women; and (3) personal accounts don't provide a guaranteed benefits for as long as you live, which is important to those who live the longest, most of whom are women.
Add to that Bush's proposed tax cuts, which would eliminate the ability to pay the government IOU's that are in the Social Security Trust Fund, and you can see why this ``exciting and adventurous'' reform plan, like many other seductive scenarios, is such a threat to so many, and especially women.
As Social Security reform becomes a political football in the weeks ahead, it's essential for voters to get past the rhetoric and focus on the facts. Whatever happens to Social Security, women will be more affected than men. Most of the Social Security checks are sent to women. Privatizing Social Security would benefit many wealthy Americans, but relatively few of them are women.
Even in this day of unprecedented opportunities for women, women still earn less than men, are less likely to have private pensions then men, and rely on the generosity of the current Social Security system more than men.
You don't need to be an expert on Social Security to realize that the next election could change Social Security in ways that will benefit or harm many Americans, and especially women.
Social Security is the third rail of American politics because it is an essential retirement program as well as an insurance program that keeps millions of Americans out of poverty. Action is needed to keep that safety net securely in place. Now that Social Security has emerged as a major campaign issue, all of us need to demand a solution that will continue to protect the millions of women and men who depend on Social Security. Otherwise, Social Security as we know it could be derailed, and a lot of Americans could be in for a shock.
Diana Zuckerman is executive director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, a nonprofit think tank.