Pension security equals retirement security

November 4, 2016


By Barbara Toles

A lack of retirement security can make the golden years of life anything but golden. Sadly, many people who have worked their entire lives find themselves struggling financially in retirement. When planning for my retirement, I thought about what I would do next (considering all I had ever done was work), and I had to try to project how much money I would need to live comfortably in retirement. While thinking about those things, I realized there was something else I couldn’t help thinking about. My greatest fear, that of being old, black, and poor. Why does that fear loom over me? The answer is simple, because I see too many people who fit that description living in poverty. It’s also a fear because I know how people treat old people, black people, and poor people. When you combine all three of those factors, you are destined to live in poverty.

Don’t get me wrong, I have always been proud to be black, and I don’t have a problem with aging. However, the thought of being poor is something that frightens me. Poverty is an ugly thing that robs you of your dignity and the ability to live a good life.

Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a teacher like several of my father’s siblings, however, I was dissuaded by my father who felt there was a glut of teachers at that time. I went on to earn a BA in Social Work, and later a Master’s Degree in Education with a Counseling major. My pension was earned over a span of 33+ years. Twenty five were spent working in Student Services on the collegiate level and I served as a Legislator for over eight. My work in Student Services and the Legislature fulfilled my personal goal of wanting to work to help people improve the quality of their lives. I feel extremely blessed and fortunate to have worked for employers who were part of the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS), which enabled me to “earn” a good pension. Very few people have the benefit of such a strong pension program where they work.

As I look around the City of Milwaukee, (which by the way holds the number one spot for being the worst city for Black Americans to live in, according to the Huffington Post), I can only dream of what the quality of life would look like if our children were better educated, if their parents had good jobs, if this city weren’t so segregated, and if more people were able to retire with the security of a good pension. I am fully aware that there are people who would label my dream a pipe dream. However, I cannot afford to stop dreaming and working to improve the quality of life in my hometown.

I can’t help but think about my mother, Teresa Toles, a woman who worked hard all of her life. She worked over twenty five years as a Laundress at St. Joseph’s Hospital, injured herself on the job prior to retirement age and ended up on disability. After her injury, she became a Home Health Care Worker who spent most nights with her clients. She cared for them until she was diagnosed with 4th stage Colon Cancer at the age of 67. She worked up until her diagnosis and died 4 months later.

While there are people who continue to work through their 60’s and into their 70’s because they want to, and their health allows them to, others work because they have to, despite their infirmities. Unfortunately, my mother fell into the latter category. It saddens me to see the quality of life diminish for people who have worked hard all their lives, people who have to continue working at a time when they should be enjoying the fruit of their labor during what should be their retirement years.

My life during retirement will be better than my mother’s because of my WRS pension. I believe retirement security is something every worker should have. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at, and act on, Senator Dave Hansen’s Private Secure Retirement Act, which would be a step in the right direction. His legislation, Senate Bill 45, would create a pension plan for the private sector that would be based on the Wisconsin Retirement System.

Barbara Toles is a former member of the Wisconsin State Assembly and an active member of the Wisconsin Coalition for Retirement Security.