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Retired Medford teacher urges Senate panel to fix Social Security system

Retired Medford High School English teacher Margaret "Peggy" Kane urged members of the U.S. Senate to repeal two provisions that undermine the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of public school educators and others who have dedicated their lives to public service.

Kane, who lives in Wilmington and taught for 35 years, testified November 6 in Washington, D.C., before a subcommittee that is chaired by Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). She called on members of the Senate Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy to support the Social Security Fairness Act of 2007, which would repeal both the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision. Together and individually, the GPO and the WEP unfairly prevent public employees -- including teachers, education support professionals, higher education faculty and staff, and other educators -- from receiving full Social Security benefits.

Testifying on behalf of the 107,000 members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Kane relayed her own personal story and those of other educators to illustrate how the offsets penalize educators in Massachusetts and 14 other states. Kane is a widow and is unable to collect survivor benefits because of the GPO, which reduces the amount of Social Security benefits paid to a spouse or survivor by two-thirds of the survivor's public pension.

"The more I get involved in this issue, the more I learn just how many women are hurt by these two provisions," Kane said in a written statement submitted by the MTA. "People are shocked when they discover at retirement age, when it is too late, that Social Security is not going to be available to them."

Before dying of cancer at age 53, Kane's husband, Dennis, contributed to Social Security for more than 30 years. For 26 of those years, he worked as a machinist at General Electric. Two days before he died, he told his wife that he would be able to "rest in peace," knowing that she would have his Social Security benefits to supplement her pension when she retired.

"This is an issue of fairness," Kane said. "My husband worked hard and paid into the Social Security system for many years, yet my family never saw a dollar."

Because of the GPO, a teacher in Massachusetts who receives a public pension for a job not covered by Social Security will lose much or all of any spousal survivor benefits that he or she would expect to collect based on a spouse's private-sector earnings. The WEP reduces the earned Social Security benefits paid to an individual who also receives a public pension from a job not covered by Social Security.

Mark Levine, an English teacher at Littleton Middle School, is a good example of the financial harm the WEP causes. He worked for 15 years as a waiter and chef before he joined the education profession. Levine, now in his 13th year of teaching, was surprised to learn that he is unlikely to get any of the money he paid into Social Security while working in the private sector.

"Since I decided to change careers, I'll get nothing," Levine said. "The bottom line for me, personally, is that I've paid into the fund. I've done what I was supposed to do. So why am I getting penalized for choosing to teach?"

The MTA is engaged in a petition drive to show members of Congress the importance of the issue. To date, the association has collected more than 50,000 signatures from people calling for the repeal of the GPO and the WEP.

"The time has come to do away with these harmful and financially damaging provisions," said MTA President Anne Wass. "They unfairly penalize public educators and their families, in some cases sending retired educators into poverty. They also undermine efforts to recruit and retain teachers at a time when attracting people to the profession could not be more crucial.

"People who have dedicated their lives to public service and students deserve better," Wass added.

Senator Kerry noted that Kane is one of many public employees who are hurt by the GPO and the WEP.

"In certain situations, families of public servants are being unfairly penalized and do not receive the benefits due to them in return for a life of hard work and public service," Kerry said. "I am happy to have Peggy Kane here in Washington today. Her experience mirrors that of many other retired public servants in Massachusetts -- not just teachers but also police, firefighters, and state and local government employees."

The hearing, Kerry said, marked "the beginning of an important national discussion about fairness, and about how we must keep faith with the public servants who keep America strong."

The Social Security Fairness Act of 2007 now has more than 300 sponsors in the House and over 30 sponsors in the Senate. The Senate version is sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). The House bill is sponsored by Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Howard McKeon (R-Calif.).