Shirley Hagen of Montebello is fighting the federal government with a special urgency: Each day, she says, about 200 of the people she is championing die of old age.
At 68, Hagen is waging a local, grass-roots campaign to eliminate what she says is the unfair way Social Security payments are made to the nation's senior citizens, specifically those 10 million who were born in the so-called "notch" years from 1917 to 1921.
Hagen is the feisty founder of the Los Angeles-area chapter of Notch Babies Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring benefits slashed a decade ago when Congress feared that the Social Security system was going to run out of cash.
Federal officials, Hagen said in a recent interview, are "hoping we'll all die off, and then they won't have to worry about it anymore."
Notch babies receive an average of nearly $600 a month in Social Security payments--about the same paid to retirees born in the years just after. But notch babies collect as much as $140 a month less than retirees born between 1910 and 1916.
The problem began with Congress in 1972. That year, when people born in 1910 had reached the retirement age of 62, the lawmakers voted to guarantee that everyone's Social Security benefits would rise with the cost of living. But in so doing, they mistakenly wrote into law a double adjustment for inflation.
Since that error ultimately could have bankrupted the system, Congress tried in 1977 to straighten things out. The lawmakers eliminated the glitch by cutting benefits in graduated steps for people born from 1917 to 1921. Those born in 1917 receive benefits close to the 1916 level, while those born in 1921 receive only a little more than those born later.
On a recent morning, Hagen stood in front of a bingo board in an auditorium in northern Orange County and tried to fire up a group of more than 100 senior citizens who had gathered to hear her.
A retired retail merchandise buyer, Hagen is a fervent speaker who paints her words with indignation. She told the crowd that it is unfair that notch babies are receiving less than their older brothers and sisters, some of whom worked their first years without contributing to Social Security. Social Security deductions began in 1937.
"People always say we're greedy. . . . We're fighting for justice and fairness," Hagen said.
"The money is there. . . . We've been paying into it all these years. Stop sending money down to Nicaragua. Let's take care of our own."
Off to the side, a woman murmured: "She's good."
Hagen supports HR1917, a bill authored by Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) that would increase benefits for notch babies. The Social Security Administration has said the bill would cost billions of dollars and would be a drain on the Social Security Trust Fund, which has a surplus. Proponents contend that the fund can well afford the cost.
"We're going to start picketing congressmen who do not back us," Hagen vowed. "We must unite, and we must do it this year. Because if we don't, we'll have a new Congress (after the November election), and I'm getting old."
Hagen's efforts have won admiration.
"She's very committed to this. . . . She's able to motivate," said Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), who supports legislation to increase benefits for notch babies. "She understands the plight of the senior citizens because she deals with them every day, and she's one herself."
Hagen runs her operation out of a studio apartment in a senior citizens housing development in Montebello. When a reporter visited her recently, her table was sprinkled with lapel buttons carrying slogans such as "Born to be short-changed." A sticker read: "I'm in the notch and I vote."
A box of envelopes sat waiting to be stuffed, and a larger package nearby was full of unopened mail--the reaction to her recent appearance on a television news show.
During the visit, Hagen's telephone rang several times. People wanted updates on the campaign or on how they could become involved. Hagen said she mails out about 100 informational packets and letters a week. She urges members to write their congressmen and circulate petitions calling for the passage of legislation to increase benefits to notch babies.
She organized recent rallies in Montebello and Long Beach and also speaks frequently to groups of senior citizens in the Los Angeles area.
Hagen's battle for higher benefits has been slowed, in part, by at least one unlikely opponent: The American Assn. of Retired Persons opposes notch legislation.
"Those people are not being cheated," said Laurel Beedon, public policy analyst for AARP. "What makes them very, very angry is that the birth group ahead of them was the beneficiary of an unintended windfall."
Angered in turn by the group's position, Hagen's group picketed AARP's Lakewood office in April.
Hagen formed her chapter in early March and says she already has about 1,000 members. Membership costs $2 and includes a monthly newsletter called Notch News.
The operation is funded through membership fees, donations and Hagen's own savings account, which she says has been depleted. As of May 15, fees and contributions to the group amounted to $1,145, while expenditures were $1,682, she said.
"I'm going to have to get a temporary job," said Hagen, who adds that she is determined to continue her efforts as long as it takes.