My so-called golden years

March 25, 2014

Cuts to the social safety net, like raising the Social Security retirement age, are affecting people's so-called "retirement," explains one worker who we are calling C.C.

AS A young child in the 1950s, growing up in a steel town, I believed what they promised. That child who was rallied to march in a straight line into Sunday school, singing "Onward Christians soldiers, marching as to war," pumped her legs high because she believed she was protected then, and if she worked hard enough, she would always be protected.

Well, I started to smell the scam in 1966 and marched myself away from that church as I watched my peers marching off to a different war in Vietnam. By then, I knew they only wanted us to work so they could get richer--and the only protection that was happening was of their wealth from us.

Once you see this, you read the signs everywhere, and there's no going back. Realizing that the education I worked so hard to get--I was the only one to go to college in my family--was not my ticket out because I would never buy into their system left me feeling like I never wanted to enter their workforce at all.

But you have to eat. Over the years, I've been an office worker in higher education or health care--never in management. That, combined with becoming a single mom, meant living from paycheck to paycheck for many years. Building up any adequate savings was a luxury for the rich.

Waiting area at a Social Security office in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City
Waiting area at a Social Security office in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City (Susan Sermoneta)

That brings us back to that promise from the '50s. I've worked hard my whole life and have certainly been used and abused on the job. While I am not rich, I can enjoy old age and will be taken care of in retirement by Social Security, right? Hardly.

IN 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave us Social Security Amendment HR 1900 (Public Law 98-21), which extended the age when you can collect the full amount of Social Security retirement benefits.

To be honest, in 1983, I didn't much think about this. But I surely did in 2000 when the law went into effect, and I was notified I couldn't collect full Social Security benefits until age 66 (as opposed to age 62), and would get more benefits if I worked until age 70.

So, okay, my "retirement plan" became to keep working, certainly into my late 60s and maybe into my 70s. Once again, I realized I'm on my own--that protection in their system is only for the rich. Even this "solution" for retirement--this life sentence--is not adequate. At 66, my full Social Security benefit is $1,634 a month, and at 70, it's $2,268 a month.

I have only a nominal pension to look forward to. Of late I've lived a "simple" life so I could put any savings I was able to afford into a 401(k) plan to supplement the Social Security. Even so, I didn't have much of a protected life on the horizon.

In 2007, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative autoimmune form of arthritis. This disease has been destroying nearly every joint in my body, with the worst damage coming in my hands, shoulders and spine. As it is a systemic disease, several internal organs in my body are also affected. I am in constant pain and fight overwhelming fatigue daily.

There is no cure, but treatment slows the damage--providing that you can afford to pay for health care and have doctors who will take your insurance. I am disabled, which will, as time goes on, have an increasingly major impact on me physically and economically.

This diagnosis makes my "working retirement plan" much more stressful to achieve. That is ironic because, I believe, it's the stress of the working conditions I've had over the years that has caused the onset of the disease in the first place. On the job, I'm tired all the time and can barely work eight hours let alone jump to do any overtime. That, combined with my age and higher pay (as opposed to a young worker starting out), makes me a target at work.

This takes me back to the "protection" concept again. None of us has protection on the job, but the older and/or disabled among us have even less. There are always ways for them to get around the laws, and, believe me, they do so whenever it suits them.

This diagnosis also makes my non-work life more stressful. My job depletes all my energy, and I have none left to pursue desired activities in my personal life. For me, that desired activity would be participation in the International Socialist Organization since I know that the success of this organization is--truly--our real "ticket out." But given everything, I can only participate/contribute a little here and there--for now.

With both Social Security and the diagnosis, I feel like I've been placed between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Instead of enjoying my "golden years," I'm scrambling to beat the odds closing in on me. Probably, if I'm not laid off, I'll work a few more years, save as much as I can and hope my health holds out enough.

But, you know, I'm not despondent. As I drive my 15-year-old car to work in the morning, I glance over and see a homeless man coming from under the bridge by the river pushing his cart for the day. And I think:

I know that many of us are better or worse off. The struggle for us all, though, is the same since we all have the same enemy.

I know ISO gives me the structure so that I can reach out a hand to that homeless man and we can struggle together.

I know that I can march again, but this time, I'm marching to liberation

Yeah, I think that's how I'll spend my golden years.

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