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The Case for Social Security Fairness to Women

BostonHerald.com      http://news.bostonherald.com/

No way to treat a vulnerable lady: Social Security begs for reform
By Jeffrey R. Lewis and Cindy Hounsell
Monday, December 18, 2006 - Updated: 09:08 AM EST

Like the offerings on a low-budget cable channel, the coming debate over Social Security reform is likely to be a movie we’ve already seen - a rerun of the shrill debate that killed the Bush administration’s privatization proposals last year. One side will be charged with hating wealth creation, and the other side accused of turning grandma out into the streets. No wonder Americans get exasperated and just want to change the channel.

    Both ends of the spectrum could come together on proposals that, by making Social Security more meaningful for women, allow conservatives to strike a blow on behalf of traditional family arrangements while allowing progressives to aid an economically disadvantaged class.

    Some 60 percent of all aged women receive benefits that are based at least in part on their husbands’ earnings history - in effect, helping to compensate for the income they forswore while raising their families. Men can receive these supplemental payments too, but more than 98 percent go to women. Nearly 5 million of these women are widows, and for them the supplement payments represent almost half of their total Social Security checks.

    Despite this, 20 percent of non-married seniors live in poverty, and four out of five of them are women. And more than half of all non-married senior women have yearly incomes under $15,000. Women in this category outnumber their male counterparts by more than three to one. The importance of a stable Social Security check cannot be overstated for these non-married seniors. Adding to these numbers will be a large influx of single boomer women - more so than any previous generation’s.

    But today, many argue for changing Social Security into something resembling an IRA or 401(k) accounts. This is the kind of change most likely to harm working women and poor women who take care of their families - women who will have far less to contribute to a personal savings account. Such a plan would lead to social insecurity.

    We tend to think of Social Security as a retirement program. However, in 2005, only 63 percent of beneficiaries received retirement benefits. The other 37 percent were disabled workers, survivors, or spouses and children of retired or disabled workers receiving benefits based on those workers’ earnings record. Personal accounts won’t mean much to the family of someone who dies or becomes disabled early in life.

    Divorced women would face a particular trauma. Under Social Security, divorced women may still receive benefits based on their ex-husband’s income - even if there are several ex-wives. Social Security pays monthly benefits for life. If we switched to a 401(k) arrangement, how would the accumulations be stretched to provide for women’s longer life spans?

    The kind of floor-to-ceiling overhaul that those who want to “privatize” Social Security have in mind makes no sense. Building a new program might be fine if we were starting fresh, but there are 49 million people signed up already, and 75 million are waiting to apply for benefits over the next 20 years. Establishing 401(k)-like accounts using Social Security taxes would exacerbate the retirement inadequacies threatening today’s workers, especially women.

    Social Security’s future deficits need to be eliminated, but we must be presented with more than a demand to raise taxes or cut benefits. We have a chance to better protect the vulnerable by avoiding benefit cuts on low and moderate income recipients, augmenting widows’ and widowers’ benefits as they age, recognizing time spent caring for loved ones by eliminating low earnings years in computing benefits, and giving a larger split of a couple’s benefits to a surviving spouse.

    Social Security is not about adding risks, but about minimizing them - it’s not about “creating wealth” through shrewd investments, but about protecting the welfare of the aged, the widowed, the disabled and their dependents. Rethinking Social Security, whatever the catalyst, gives lawmakers an opportunity to enhance the lives of women who work hard for their families, once they are too old and frail to work for themselves.


Jeffrey R. Lewis is chairman of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement and president of the Heinz Family Philanthropies (jlewis@heinzoffice.org). Cindy Hounsell is president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (wiserwomen@a



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