by Elizabeth Hann, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
Walking up to the Capitol steps in the morning just never gets old. It feels strange being at the Texas Capitol surrounded by lawyers, aides, clerks, lobbyists, and other important staff, but this just solidifies the need to have social workers as part of the legislative process. Our perspective is so necessary when it comes to creating policy. A lot of times people forget that the laws passed really do affect people; our entire lives are surrounded and shaped by public policy. This legislative session, there are many policy debates that social workers will be interested in, such as foster care, LGBTQ issues, immigration reform, and women’s health. However, I would like to focus here on another policy area that may seem less stimulating, but that has critical social welfare implications – pensions.
Issues of economic justice often seem left behind in social work. While we focus our practice on tending to abuse, exploitation, and other horrific realities – we sometimes forget about how the economic system and the oppression that comes along with it contribute to these challenges our clients face. Right now many cities in Texas, such as Dallas and Houston, are facing a crisis. Hard-working people are getting closer and closer to losing their pensions and retirement savings. Pension funds are hemorrhaging and are in need of intervention due to a variety of reasons, including bad pension fund investments, unrealistic assumed rate of returns on earnings in pension funds, and the mismanagement of pension funds. Texas workers who have paid into a pension system for their entire career with the promise of public pension benefits are about to lose it all. We have let this volcano simmer for years and it’s about to burst.
So why is this a social work issue? The preamble to the NASW Code of Ethics reminds us that the “primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable.” In Texas, public workers are vulnerable. If workers are unable to collect the benefits they have worked for throughout their careers and expected to receive upon retirement, many will be forced to live in poverty and may need to utilize social programs to survive. Some public employees are particularly hard hit by this, because, by law, 30% of employees of state and local governments do not pay into or earn Social Security. People who are not social work clients now may be very soon as they head into retirement with limited or no financial support.
There are many things that social workers do to help others and there are many problems that require our attention. We need to make sure that in our efforts to aid our clients and fix broken systems that we don’t leave anyone behind. You don’t need to be an economist or an accountant to see that there is a problem in Texas with the way we handle money. The Texas Retirement System has an unfunded accrued liability of $60 billion. Without proper reform now, our pensions will not be able to stay afloat and will cost the taxpayer billions of dollars. Many times, our spending priorities don’t make sense but we have to continue to fight for the vulnerable even if it means getting out of our comfort zone. I hope that I am able to continue to understand these struggles and am able to fight for economic justice here in the Texas Legislature this session.