When I was a young organizer for Iowa Citizen Action Network, we were doing a lot of work on utility rate hikes. I met an elderly woman, maybe late 70s, who was living on her Social Security check.
As utility prices went through the roof, her cost of living increase in that check wasn’t coming anywhere close to covering the costs she had. She was extremely worried, because as frugal as she was she couldn’t figure out how to keep her heat on, pay her rent, and buy a few meager groceries.
She thought the utilities might end up shutting her heat off. I suggested a social services agency she could go to, and that she might check with neighborhood churches to see if they had funds that could help. And I promised that I would do everything I could to fight for her.
I pushed hard on the local utility companies to try and shame them away from turning the heat off the dead of an Iowa winter, which didn’t work very well because the utility companies had no shame. And my organization pushed in the legislature to get a bill passed that would prohibit utility shutoffs in the wintertime, which didn’t pass the first year but did the second year we worked on it. But it didn’t pass in time to save the woman I met.
Reading the Cedar Rapids Gazette one day that winter, I saw that the woman I met had been found dead in her apartment of hypothermia after the utility company had turned off her heat.
When we got the bill passed in the next session, I thought of her. I was proud that no one would die in the coming years in Iowa because of having their heat turned off, but I was also mourning that we were too late to save her. And I vowed to keep my promise to her as long as I lived, that I would keep fighting for her and people like her.
It’s 30 years later, but I still have promises to keep, as do all Democrats who claim to be on the side of the middle class and poor. As Dean Baker makes clear, if the President’s apparent offer of changing the CPI formula is part of the budget deal, it will be a very hard blow for generations to come for seniors who will be unlikely to have decent pensions or much in the way of savings to cushion the blow of these cuts. And with prices for necessities (utility prices, gas, groceries, health care) tending to go up more than the inflation rate in general, this is the absolute worst kind of cut to be making.
I have been having some interesting conversations with Democrats over the last 24 hours about what being a loyal Democrat means with the President seeming likely to go forward with this deal. The point has been made that the Republicans are far worse than Obama on these issues, as all they want to do is to gut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs for the poor, and that is definitely true. The fact that the President is, according to the Washington Post, proposing to exclude SSI disability payments and provide a bump-up in benefits for those 85 and older is a good thing and much appreciated. People have said to me that the President’s heart is in the right place, and that he is working hard to get the best deal he thinks he can get, which may well be true- I gave up judging politicians’ motives long ago. And I have been told I should be a loyal Democrat, that the President is our party’s leader, and we should be unified in supporting him.
But here’s the deal: I didn’t get into politics to help the Democratic party. I came to the Democratic party because they more often wanted to help the people I cared about helping- the poor, the disabled, the middle class folks fighting for a decent life for them and their families. When forced to choose, as it looks like I will in this case, I will choose the people I got into this work to fight for.
My first loyalties are to my middle class family, who will depend heavily on Social Security because they mostly won’t have lots of savings or generous pensions; to the kids I grew up with in a working class part of Lincoln, NE, who are getting ready to retire and mostly don’t have those savings or pensions either; to the people like my late brother Kevin who have lived with serious disabilities, who may or may not be taken care of depending on what is negotiated away next; and to the poor people and seniors who I got to know as a young organizer, like the elderly woman I made a promise to that I would keep fighting for her.
If the President decides to give into Republican demands to cut this kind of deal, thinking that launching a civil war with people like me who were part of his winning coalition in the election is better for the country and worth the trade-off, he will do what feels like he should. The DC pundits will be ecstatic (“the President is so brave to take on those seniors and cut Social Security”). Wall Street will be thrilled, they have been wanting to cut middle class benefits and the Social Security system for years. But on behalf of those people to whom I owe my first loyalties, I will do whatever I can to fight the kind of plan being described in news accounts today. I hope the rest of the progressive movement that has pledged to fight this kind of deal will fight the good fight along with me. The President will do what he thinks is best. The rest of us need to as well. If the deal goes down, it will be quite a way to start the President’s second term, an ugly fight with the people who fought by his side to elect him. We’ll see what’s ahead.