New Jersey Jewish News

A Lifelong Activist Bucks The Republicans On Social Security

New Jersey Jewish News — Thursday, July 28, 2005

BY Enid Weiss
NJJN Bureau Chief/Trenton

Once the stuff of Sunday talk shows and daily headlines, the Social Security debate seems to have been pushed aside by war, terrorism, White House leaks, and the Supreme Court nomination.

But Evelyn "Ev" Liebman refuses to allow Social Security to devolve into a dispute among policy wonks. So there she was, one of several who led 150 people protesting the Bush administration's plan to privatize Social Security at a July 22 Princeton-area GOP fund-raiser with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Bush administration's attempt to privatize the entitlement program would "give Wall Street executives a multi-million-dollar windfall and threaten many Americans," said Liebman, program director for the watchdog coalition New Jersey Citizen Action. "We think [Social Security] represents a core value of the type of society we want to be."

Cheney's visit, held in the Westin Hotel at Plainsboro's Forrestal Village, raised funds for Doug Forrester as he girds for battle against Sen. Jon Corzine for the governor's mansion. Calling the privatization of Social Security a "bad deal" for the state's residents, NJCA has asked Forrester to break ranks with his party leaders and oppose the plan.

"We want to expose the fact that Doug Forrester has supported the privatization of Social Security in the past," added Liebman. "We'd like him to reverse that position and take a stand on president's scheme and reject it."

If it seems a thankless job – corralling volunteers, hounding politicians, and waving placards in the hopes of a few seconds of air time on a local news channel – Liebman isn't complaining. "I've always done advocacy work," said Liebman, who lives in Mount Holly.

While in college at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, she worked as an intern for NJ Public Interest Research Group on the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. Later she worked for the Communication Workers of America.

Liebman's resume is packed with these kinds of positions, inspired in part by growing up "with an academic for a father" who raised the family in Minneapolis, New Orleans, Berkeley, Calif., and Bergen County.

"I remember, as a kid, being taken to antiwar demonstrations," Liebman said. "And I remember other events that, even though I didn't realize it at the time, gave me a sense of the injustice of the world."

Liebman said she also recalls when her elementary school was integrated, when she was in first or second grade. "I remember going to school with my mom and the streets being lined with police and people and asking my mom what's going on. There were two African-American kids going to school, and the year before, they couldn't get in; the mobs were too large.

"I was always drawn to work designed to correct that [injustice]," Liebman said. "I always felt the need to work in some way that I could make a difference – so there's less injustice and more fairness."

Those are themes that she connects with her Jewishness. Married with two children, Liebman does not belong to a synagogue, but said the Jewish holidays she enjoys spending with family and friends sound themes that animate her work.

"One of the things I love about the Jewish holidays is the history behind them, the struggle for freedom," Liebman said. "As a Jew, even just being exposed to the culture and history, you are aware of oppression in the world and impact of hatred and the violence of hatred."

Liebman's heritage is important to her, and she recently learned more about it. A great-great aunt, born in 1876, kept memoirs of her life as a mail-order Russian-Jewish bride wed to a North Dakota homesteader. They were published in 1995 as a book, Rachel Calof's Story, which remains on the recommended lists of a number of Jewish library associations.

Her forebear "was very religious," said Liebman. She lived in the West in "a whole Jewish settlement there, and they built a school there," Liebman said. "My dad didn't know anything about the book, and he had been close to his grandfather. I found it when I helped my daughter do a project for school on Ellis Island.

"The story is fascinating," Liebman said. "It was totally neat, just to discover it."

Fundamental concern

The consequences of the Social Security debate may not match the depredations endured by her pioneering great-aunt on the windswept northern plains. But both women seem linked by a commitment to maintaining dignity among the vulnerable.

Social Security "is not a welfare program," Liebman said. "It's a program we pay for.... It embodies a fundamental concern we have as people to support men and women in their retirement -- to allow people who have spent many decades working to live comfortably."

NJCA cites a report by the nonpartisan Institute for America's Future that holds that under the president's plan, an average NJ wage earner retiring in 2080 -- the final year of the Social Security Administration's planning calculator -- would face a $327,542 (in today's dollars) lifetime benefit cut.

"As the former director of New Jersey's state pension system, Doug Forrester knows well the importance of a sound, secure, and risk-free retirement system which provides a defined and guaranteed benefit," Liebman said in a press release. "As such, Mr. Forrester surely understands the fatal flaws of the Bush privatization plan, which would impose undue risk on Social Security and would slash guaranteed benefits and explode the national debt. We urge Mr. Forrester to break ranks with his party leaders and to tell Mr. Cheney he disagrees with the President and opposes his risky and expensive privatization plan."

During the July 22 fund-raising event, Cheney defended Bush's Social Security plan, calling it a way to save the program for future recipients.

Forrester spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester was contacted; she had no comment regarding the protesters or their message.

Gubernatorial candidate Corzine is critical of the Bush plan, saying it would "shortchange struggling families at their very time of need."

It is an issue for those running for governor, because New Jerseyans stand to lose more than $25 billion in income if Social Security is privatized, according to Liebman.

"Essentially it becomes an unfounded mandate," Liebman said. "It's bad for individuals, and it's bad for the state as a whole. It dumps more problems on the state. Our campaign is to call on New Jersey's congressional delegation to reject the president's plan."

And she's on to her next protest.

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