Sit down and calculate how little money you’ll be living on when you retire? The mind skitters away from that job. Therefore, to ponder the new report harshly highlighting the diminishment of women’s income at retirement age is to be doubly alarmed.
Last week, three nonprofit groups that have long been troubled by the male-female earnings gap released “Breaking the Social Security Glass Ceiling: A Proposal to Modernize Women’s Benefits,” a report focusing on this serious problem—and offering solutions.
For three decades, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has been working to protect the income security of older Americans. This nonprofit recently teamed up with the National Organization for Women Federation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research to urgently shine a spotlight on how the earnings gap affects women toward the end of their lives.
“The genius of the [Social Security] system is that it has lasted so well and so long,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton noted at the coalition’s congressional briefing last Friday. But the system was designed for yesterday’s workforce.
True, some women have done extremely well in the marketplace in recent years—doctors, lawyers, and the like. But what’s important about “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” Norton pointed out, is that it focuses on the plight of “the mainstream woman, the average woman, the working woman”—the woman who is likely to have earned a small salary and to lack benefits like a pension or a 401(K) after a lifetime of hard work. (0n average, the report notes, only 28 percent of women 65 to 74 receive pensions, but 42 percent of men in that cohort do.)
“The great challenge of the feminist movement was all on the front end of the workforce,” Norton said. Today we are finally paying attention to the back end—the fact that women’s smaller salaries, longtime male/female job segregation (with the well-paid jobs going to the men), and women’s need to take time out for caregiving combine to give women smaller Social Security benefits.
In 2009, the average annual Social Security income of a retired man was $15,620; of a retired woman, $12,155. “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” notes that even with Social Security, 15 percent of widows live in poverty—a rate 50 percent higher than that of other retirees 65 and older. And the poverty rates for women of color are even greater: 26.1 percent of African American women 75 or older and 21.4 percent of Hispanic women of the same age, even though they’re on Social Security.
Innovative Fixes to Keep Women Afloat
There are many other areas of Social Security inequity that “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” would like to see addressed, including removing barriers to benefits for the disabled, changing the cost of living adjustment to take into account seniors’ high medical costs, and allowing for equal benefits for same-sex couples. To learn more, download the coalition’s very readable “Breaking the Social Security Glass Ceiling” report, or watch C-SPAN’s absorbing video of last week’s congressional briefing.