Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013
Accepting the challenge offered by organizers of Rhode Island AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say”, veteran advocate and organizer, Susan L. Sweet, has come out of semi-retirement, stepping to the plate to coordinate a series of “community conversations” to continue efforts of promoting dialogue throughout the OceanState on the future of Social Security and Medicare.
After years of paying into Medicare and Social Security, AARP, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing 40 million Americans, believes that age 50 plus aging baby boomers and older persons deserve a voice in the Inside the Beltway debates that impacts their future retirement years. “You’ve Earned a Say” is a AARP-led national conversation committed to providing people with critical information about the domestic policy proposals being debated in Congress — simply put without the political jargon and spin.
Regional events to be held in Warwick, Pawtucket and elsewhere – free and open to all — will be scheduled throughout the summer into the fall as Congress and President Barack Obama begin to weigh in on policy changes for these critical domestic programs.
“Susan has a remarkable knack for encouraging people to become actively engaged in matters that deserve public attention and involvement,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are fortunate that she has agreed to take this on. She will bring great energy to AARP’s ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ outreach and engagement efforts. The fate of Social Security and Medicare is important to all Rhode Islanders and we hope many will take part in our forums. Working with our staff and other AARP volunteers, Susan will be a tremendous asset. She is a force of nature.” After seeing her in action for over 18 years this columnist agrees.
A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sweet joined the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 1972, where she founded and led numerous Rhode Island Division of Women’s programs. She worked with the General Assembly to secure the first state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters. While at the DCA, she also wrote a grant, funded by federal dollars, to establish community health centers throughout the state.
In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Sweet was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the RI Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE. She initiated a first in the nation statewide Elder Housing Security program and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders in the state.
Sweet, a Rumford resident, earned the monikor as the mother of RIPAE by initiating, planning, organizing, managing and finally directing the state program that would ultimately assist 32,000 Rhode Island limited income seniors with state co-payment assistance for prescription drugs. After leaving the DEA, three attempts were made by sitting governors (both Independent and Republican) to eliminate the program and the advocate led all three successful efforts to restore RIPAE funding in the state budget.
After retiring as DEA’s Associate Director in 2000, Sweet has been a consultant and lobbyist on Smith Hill for nonprofit agencies and an advocate for vulnerable populations and issues such as immigrants, domestic violence, homeless and seniors. Her clients have included the Senior Centers Directors Association, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, International Institute, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and others.
On a personal note, Sweet, 72, cares for five adopted cats, all abandoned or abused, putters in her large backyard garden, spends time with two children and two grandchildren. Being an expert on Roman history she reads many tomes on that era, and on world archeology and history.
Social Security on the Chopping Block
Democratic President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP House of Representatives are trying to reach a budget deal in the coming months. President Obama has proposed a change that would slash $127 billion from Social Security benefits over the next ten years, hurting many older beneficiaries who are already living on very tight budgets stretched far to thin by costly prescriptions, rising utilities, and increased health care costs. AARP and other aging groups are pushing hard against these cuts, mobilizing their troops to oppose.
Social Security is a self-financed program, not a piggy bank for deficit reduction, noting that aging baby boomers and seniors have paid into this pension program their entire working lives. According to AARP polls, older Americans expect their elected representatives in Washington to fiscally secure Social Security for future generations and keep the promise Congress made 78 years ago: that this retirement program would provide a financial safety network in their later years.
According to Sweet, the proposed chained CPI is a flawed policy that will hit Social Security beneficiaries in their pocketbook. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes the determination, based on market prices, whether to adjust the Social Security payment to beneficiaries and, if so, by how much. The chained CPI is a formula that assumes that people will simply buy cheaper products. “But that is not the case for seniors, whose greatest expenses are health care, utilities and other costs that can’t often be replaced,” So, the chained CPI is just a term that means that the average senior will lose more than $2,000 in the next 10 years and even more after that. It also means that people reaching retirement age and/or planning for retirement will have even more of a reduction.
Furthermore, Sweet finds it extremely disappointing that a Democrat President would offer, as an opening gambit in the budget process, a reduction in Social Security benefits by using a new and inappropriate method for computing Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs). In fact, Social Security, a program that pays for itself and has never run a deficit, should not be used to offset deficits in other programs. We should be talking about how to strengthen the program, not reducing it, she states.
State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too
But, with Social Security COLA cuts looming if Congress takes legislative action to endorse chained CPIs, aging baby boomers in the OceanState who will shortly retire or those already receiving their municipal or state pension checks will see less retirement income because of actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly.
“Any additional loss of retirement income is certainly a concern for public employees who, as a result of the 2011 slashes in their promised retirement income,” said AARP’s Connell. “Lawmakers need to understand that there are earned benefits. People plan their retirement based on what they are told they can count on – whether it is a public or private pension, or Social Security. As we have said for the past two years, Congress and the President should not address the deficit by pursuing harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”
Sweet agrees stating that “Rhode Island was at the very front of the attack on older folks with an extraordinary coup which stripped public service retirees and workers of hard earned compensation for their work. They called it “pension reform”, but that is not what it was. Everyone knows that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game and certainly not after the game is over. But that is what is happening around the country, in private and public employment.”
Social Security and other pensions are not “entitlement programs” but more like insurance programs that you pay into with the promise and expectation of a certain coverage, notes Sweet. The aging advocate asks: “Should the insurance company be allowed to change the benefits upon payout? Should government (state or federal) cut benefits to retirees absent the most pressing of circumstances?”
But, certainly in the case of Social Security, there is no emergency, but rather a timely need to insure that the program can continue to fulfill its mission, she says.
Robert A. Walsh, Jr., Executive Director of NEA, National Education Association Rhode Island, representing 12,000 members in education and in city and state government, refers to the recalculation of COLAs by using chained CPIs as “voodoo economics.” While supporters of this recalculation policy note it reins in Social Security costs, they should at least be honest about the fact that it personally hits the retiree financially, right in their checks, he says. “If you’re going to cut people’s COLAs, just be honest about it,” he says.
Many of Walsh’s union members only receive their city or state pension as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits. People retired with certain expectations [as to what retirement income they had] and to make pension changes after they retire is patently unfair, says Walsh, noting they had no opportunity to plan for the decreased income.
Throughout the nation there is a growing movement of aging baby boomers and seniors, fueled by AARP’s educational efforts, who tell Congress to simply “Leave Social Security Alone”. Strengthen it for future generations, they say.
Sweet and millions of others tell Washington politicians that “Social Security is not a cookie jar to fund other programs.” Sweet says you can make this known to Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Representatives Cicciline and Langevin, by attending the upcoming “community conversations.” Support their position opposing the change in the COLA and urge them to support Social Security by leaving it out of any budget deal, she urges.
Herb Weiss LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com