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Allegra Baider's picture

This week, the Social Security Trustees released their annual report about Social Security’s finances.  As usual, opponents jumped all over it, sounding the alarm bells and calling for drastic cuts.  But they got it all wrong: rather than cutting Social Security we need to expand it in ways that would benefit everyone, and particularly women, who rely on the program so much.

Fighting to protect and expand Social Security is a women’s issue. Women, who have worked their whole lives, in paid jobs and providing unpaid caregiving, are at risk of poverty in old age, and without Social Security, many women would be in deep poverty.  Even with Social Security benefits, many elderly women are struggling.  Women, like Sara Moore, who worked hard her entire life in multiple jobs, starting out as a waitress in her teens in her hometown of Petersburg Illinois, and then working in administration at a law firm, and later as a Certified Nursing Assistant. Sara spent over 30 years in the paid workforce in addition to her work as an unpaid caregiver both for her father while he was on his death bed and her children when they were young. Now, at age 80, Sara survives on her Social Security benefits alone, which provide her with an income below the poverty level. Sara struggles every day. Without food from a local food pantry, she doesn’t know what she would do. She doesn’t buy meat, and stretches all her meals. Sara loves candy bars but she can’t afford them.

Sara’s story is typical of women across America. And it makes me angry.  I think Sara should not have to worry about where her next meal is going to come from.  And I think she should be able to buy a candy bar whenever she wants one. Is that too much to ask?  I believe is time to expand Social Security benefits in order to provide the economic security in retirement that women like Sara deserve.

Earlier this month, Representative Nita Lowey introduced a new bill that would do just that. Representative Lowey’s bill, called the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act of 2014, would recognize the time a person takes out of the paid workforce to care for a loved in their Social Security benefit calculation.  This proposal has the potential to improve Social Security benefits for millions of mothers, fathers, and children taking care of elderly parents.

Adopting a caregiver credit in our Social Security system would be a huge step forward because it would finally recognize caregiving for what it is – hard work.  Anyone who has been a caregiver knows exactly what I mean.  Social Security benefits are calculated based on a persons’ 35 highest earning years, so when we take time out of the paid workforce, or reduce our time in the paid workforce (such as by working part time) it can have a long term impact on our Social Security benefits.  The Caregiver Credit would help address this problem, and as such it is particularly important for women, since we are still the ones who provide the majority of caregiving, both paid and unpaid, in America.

In addition to recognizing caregiving as work, this proposal is an important way to help improve Social Security benefits, which would help people – particularly women – have a more secure retirement.  And women in are struggling in retirement. Why? Because all of the gender discrimination that women workers face in the labor market throughout their working lives, play out in retirement – leading to increased retirement insecurity. Because women are consistently paid less than men for doing the same work, and because of occupational segregation that traps women in low wage jobs, our wages are lower, and as a result our Social Security benefits are lower since Social Security benefit levels are based on prior earnings. Women are the vast majority of low-wage workers. Women also have less access to pension plans and retirement savings plans. And because women still shoulder the bulk of unpaid caregiving responsibilities, women average fewer years in the paid workforce than men.  All of this translates to significantly lower Social Security benefits for women.   In 2012, the average annual Social Security income received by women 65 years was almost $4000 less than that received by men.

Not only are women’s benefits significantly lower than men’s benefits, we rely on Social Security more.  Because women earn less, women are less able to save less for our retirement, and have less access to pensions and private retirement savings plans, and as such are more reliant on Social Security. Women also have higher health care costs and we live longer. This all means that women are more likely than men to end up in poverty in old age.

Social Security is critical to all women, but particular to women who earn low wages throughout their lifetimes, and women who have never been married or married for less than 10 years also will not have access to a spousal benefit, and their own benefit becomes even more important. It’s time we make our Social Security benefits work better for everyone, and particularly for women, who rely on them so much.  

Luckily, there are members of Congress like Representative Lowey fighting to improve benefits for women, and members like Representative Linda Sanchez and Senator Tom Harkin who have introduced a bill to provide a benefit increase for all Social Security recipients and improve the way that annual cost of living adjustment is calculated. Senator Harkin and Representative Sanchez’ bill, the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013, would also improve the long term finances of our Social Security system, by making sure that millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate of taxes into Social Security as you and me.  Right now, there is a cap on how much a person has to pay in Social Security taxes – this year it was $117,000.  After hitting the cap, a person stops paying taxes for the rest of the year! This year, 900 of the nation’s richest corporate CEOs made $117,000 within the first week of the year, and then stopped paying Social Security taxes for the rest of the year.

You would think that these common sense proposals to expand benefits and make the financing of the Social Security system fairer would enjoy a tremendous amount of support in Congress, to reflect the high level of support they enjoy with the public, but unfortunately that is not the case. While many Democrats have lined up to support these proposals, not one Republican has yet to sign on. The opponents of Social Security are well funded, and have members of Congress who will press to advance their cause of slashing benefits.

This week, the Social Security Trustees released their annual report about with long term projections about how the program is funded to help guide Congressional decisions about how to manage the program. The Trustees found that the Social Security Trust Fund, which continues to grow, will be fully funded for the next two decades, and after that, if no changes are made, over the next 50 years, the program would still be able to cover almost 90% of program costs.

Opponents of Social Security immediately jumped on the report to say we need to cut benefits. Instead of asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share into the system so that it is strong for decades to come, opponents of Social Security want people like Sara to live on less!

Attacks on Social Security are attacks on women and our future economic security.

It’s time to fight back.  It’s time to demand that our elected representatives fight for women to have a decent retirement by protecting and expanding Social Security, and by recognizing the time out of the workforce we spend caring for loved ones for what it is – hard work.

Call your representatives and ask them to cosponsor the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act of 2014.

And while you are at it, ask them to cosponsor the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013, which would make everyone pay their fair share into the Social Security system, improve the way the annual cost of living adjustment is calculated, and provide a benefit increase for everyone.

Tell them if they support any proposals to cut benefits you will be watching.

Do it for your mother, your grandmothers, your daughters, your sisters. Do it for women like Sara. And do it for yourself.

Allegra Baider is the Deputy Director of Public Policy at the Center for Community Change Action.

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