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.

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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

  •  For one factor causing the income gap—women’s shorter careers because they must take time out for caregiving—“The Glass Ceiling” offers a revolutionary fix: Give women up to five years of imputed Social Security earnings credit for years spent caring for children under six or elderly parents. The report explains how this benefit is computed.
  • And what about the plight of the widow? After the death of her husband she can claim his Social Security benefit, if it is larger than hers (and it usually is). Still, her household now has only one beneficiary rather than two. Even claiming his higher benefit, she loses from 33 1/3 to 50 percent of household income (ironically, the higher her salary, the greater her loss of income). “The Glass Ceiling” suggests reducing the loss to 25 percent by allowing the surviving spouse keep 75 percent of the couple’s combined income, with a certain cap applied. (A surviving spouse needs 80 percent of the couple’s combined retirement income to keep the same standard of living.)
  •  Getting divorced? Don’t do it—not before you’ve reached the 10-year mark, Dr. Heidi Hartman, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, declared wryly; Social Security rules allow a woman to claim the same spousal benefit she would have received had there been no divorce—but only if the marriage has lasted for as long as 10 years. And she’ll get only one benefit, now matter how many 10-year marriages she’s had.

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.






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