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Social Security Is Women's Security

We’re delighted to participate in WOW’s blogging event in honor of Older Americans’ Month – and get a different conversation about Social Security started.

Women worry more than men about their retirement security – with good reason. They’re paid less than men. They do most of the unpaid care-giving. So they have less money when they reach retirement. On top of that, women live longer than men. So Social Security is especially important to women – and it matters for women all across the country. Social Security benefits are secure, adjusted for inflation, progressive (so low earners receive a higher percentage of their pre-retirement earnings than higher earners do) and they last a lifetime. Social Security benefits cover workers and their spouses, surviving spouses, and children.

Women are the majority of Social Security beneficiaries: nearly 60 percent of beneficiaries 65 and older and nearly 70 percent of beneficiaries 85 and older are women. In addition, women are more reliant than men on income from Social Security. Social Security provides 90 percent or more of the family income for about three in ten female beneficiaries 65 and older, compared to two in ten male beneficiaries 65 and older. The gender gap in reliance on Social Security increases with age. Social Security provides 90 percent or more of the family income for about 40 percent of female beneficiaries 80 and older, compared to 25 percent of male beneficiaries 80 and older.

Although women rely more on income from Social Security than men do, their benefits are lower. The average Social Security benefit for women 65 and older is about $12,000 annually – only three-quarters of the average benefit for men 65 and older.

Social Security’s modest benefits play a critical role in reducing poverty among elderly women. Without Social Security, an additional 8.5 million women 65 and older would have been poor in 2009. Without Social Security, the poverty rate for all women 65 and older, including non-beneficiaries and beneficiaries, would have risen from 11 percent to 49 percent; for women 65 and older living alone, including non-beneficiaries and beneficiaries, the poverty rate would have risen from 17 percent to 66 percent.

But, despite Social Security, older women are at greater risk of poverty and economic security than older men. Women are more than two-thirds of the elderly poor; in 2009, 2.3 million women 65 and older and 1.1 million men 65 and older lived in poverty.

Despite the critical importance of Social Security, proposals to cut vital benefits are being promoted. For example, the Bowles-Simpson report, endorsed by 11 of 18 members of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, proposed cutting benefits three ways: by raising the retirement age, changing the benefit formula, and reducing the cost-of-living adjustment. Some policy makers are supporting an overall cap on federal spending that would force deep cuts to Social Security, as well as Medicare, Medicaid, and other critical programs.

For years, opponents of Social Security have claimed that Social Security is in crisis or going broke in order to promote privatization and deep benefit cuts. Unfortunately, many members of the public, especially younger people, have been persuaded that Social Security won’t be there for them when they need it.

But the facts show that Social Security is going strong. The latest report of the Social Security Trustees shows that even with no changes, Social Security can pay 100 promised benefits until 2036 and, after that, 77 percent of benefits from payroll taxes. There is a long-term shortfall, but it is manageable and there are a variety of ways to close the long-term shortfall – and finance needed benefit improvements – without painful benefit cuts, by asking those with the greatest ability to contribute more to Social Security.

Wouldn’t it be nice if policy makers observed Older Americans’ Month by looking for ways to strengthen and improve Social Security instead of cutting it?


This blog is part of the Income Security focused day of Wider Opportunities for Women's Elder Economic Security Blog Week. You cal follow along with all the posts this week on WOW's National Elder Economic Security Initiative blog.