Social Security: high stakes for women

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Conservatives howl that Social Security is bankrupting the country. And in his State of the Union Address, President Obama called for “reforms,” code for cuts.

But as wages and benefits steadily fall and pensions become a thing of the past, no one is talking about who needs this program the most. More working people than ever rely on Social Security. And women’s need is greatest.

Make no mistake; cutbacks or raised age limits could be a death sentence for many elder women already living in poverty. Many more will be pushed into destitution if reductions go through.

The fact is Social Security is financially strong. And despite repeated tall tales by many pundits and politicians, it hasn’t added a penny to the federal debt. D.C. officials have simply invented another crisis to transfer workers’ wealth into their own pockets.

Just the facts. With little notice taken by lawmakers, the feminist movement has for years raised the problem of the feminization of poverty. Far more women are poor than men, for many reasons.

They are usually paid less, even when they do the same work as men. Most are segregated in the lowest paying jobs. They are the majority of part-time workers. More single parents are women. And they often leave the workforce temporarily to care for children or ill, disabled or older family members.

So women usually have lower lifetime earnings. By the time they get to retirement age, they are less likely to have pensions or other sources of retirement income, and get much lower monthly payments from Social Security.

Cuts to these smaller checks are not “belt-tightening.” This is a life and death matter. In 2008, 70 percent of older adults in poverty were women. One-third of women between 65 and 74 would live in poverty without Social Security, and half of those over 75 would.

Women are the majority of Social Security recipients, and they tend to rely on it for survival. As of 2010, 46 percent of older unmarried women, and 58 percent of older unmarried women of color, relied on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income.

The federal poverty line is wrongly set lower for seniors than for working age adults, presumably because workers spend more. But the federal poverty line should be at least as high for elders, because the increasing cost of healthcare impacts older people more.

The so-called “near poor” have incomes below 150 percent of official poverty. About 40 percent of older African American and Latino women are in this group of the destitute, as the result of decades of racist wage discrimination. Mind-boggling statistics. What are all these women supposed to do if the proposed slash of benefits is enacted?

Then there are the disability benefits relied on especially by low income workers, whether or not they are retirement age. Women of color disproportionately rely on Social Security disability benefits. More than one in four black women and more than one in five other women of color who get Social Security, are disabled workers.

Bipartisan benefit-cutting. Republicans are open about wanting to gut Social Security to pay for the federal debt. (See War, Inc. — The military addiction on how the military is the real culprit.) Pres. Obama says he’s ready to implement what’s termed the “chained CPI.” This is gobbledygook for under-calculating the rise in the cost of living.

It would cut benefits more and more each year. By the time seniors were in their nineties, they would lose a full month’s benefits every year.

This change in cost of living adjustments would also hit disabled workers and soldiers hard. It would not only devastate individuals, but wreak havoc on the entire economy, as the demand fell for goods and services that many could no longer afford.

An equally rotten proposal is to raise the retirement age, which has already gone from 65 to 67. This strikes the lowest-paid workers the hardest, including women, because many are in more physically demanding jobs that damage their health and make delaying retirement impossible.

Social Security isn’t broke. The system has a huge surplus of no less than $2.7 trillion dollars, and has yet to have a year of negative income. Opponents stress that payroll tax income is less than the money currently being paid out. But they never include the interest being paid into the Social Security Trust Funds by the federal government, $114 billion in 2011.

It works this way. Congress has borrowed the excess money collected from payroll taxes over the years, investing it in U.S. government bonds. Just as the federal government pays interest to other buyers of U.S. bonds, it pays the interest on bonds purchased by the Social Security Trust Funds. Now politicians are trying to cut our retirement benefits to get out of paying back all they owe of our borrowed retirement money!

Social Security does not contribute to the federal debt. It is funded separately out of its own payroll taxes. It’s not allowed to borrow from the federal government. Working women and men should not give up any of our guaranteed benefits because Congress ran up the federal debt to fund wars and tax breaks for the rich!

There is a need to increase Social Security income for the future. This could easily be done by dropping the payroll tax exemption for wages over $113,700 this year. Tax all wages. End of problem. No one is talking about this simple option. Congress takes a dim view of taxing the rich.

Fight for more, not less. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research and other groups call for expanding Social Security, especially to raise the already inadequate cost of living adjustment, and raise payments to low-income recipients.

This is the right direction to go, especially for women. A mobilization by the many millions of angry elders and their working families, who will need Social Security even more, would be breathtaking.

Megan Cornish can be emailed at

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