A Birthday We Can All Celebrate

By Jan Erickson, NOW Government Relations Director

Today is a day we can all celebrate – the 78th birthday of Social Security. Social Security is no handout — it is an earned benefit that we work for, based on the payroll taxes we contribute throughout our working lives. For women, the earned benefit amounts to nearly $300,000 as a guaranteed source of retirement income; this amount can be even higher, if you’ve earned more than the average wage of $43,500 (based on 2011 dollars). This guarantee of a monthly retirement check rises each year with inflation. And it will always be there for you. If you are planning on drawing your Social Security retirement as a spouse of a worker or as a widow, then you can still count on having that dependable income source. If you’re a parent who loses a working spouse through disability or death, you and your children can claim survivor’s benefits as well.

So Social Security is a gift that keeps on giving. It keeps 35 percent of seniors (almost 14.5 million) out of poverty. It assures that life-time low income earners get a better deal by compensating them with a progressively higher minimum benefit. Modestly higher benefits for low income workers are especially important to the millions of women who have spent a working career at the minimum wage level. Due in large part to the Great Recession — and declining household income over many years — both women and men are becoming much more reliant on Social Security as a major part of their income as they age. Sex-based wage discrimination plays a role in limiting women’s lifetime earnings and for that reason they are often more dependent up Social Security as an important source of income in their elder years.

We know that women are less able to save and invest as a result of sex-based wage discrimination and years out of the paid workforce caring for families. In addition, not many women have pension income of their own. The broader reality is that defined benefit pensions are disappearing, home values are not what they used to be and those 401 (k)s just aren’t producing enough income for long retirements. Public sector employees – teachers, social workers and other state and local government employees – are looking at underfunded pension plans.

Unmarried women and especially unmarried women of color frequently arrive at retirement age with few savings and investments. For them, Social Security is a life-saver. It may be their only source of retirement income. For women with disabilities – many of whom cannot work full-time – Social Security’s Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is that crucial safety net. (Though the monthly benefits through SSDI are often far too modest.)

Here’s where committed NOW activists come in: we want to see Social Security benefits improved. Because so many more millions of women and men are looking to Social Security as a main source of income for what may be 20 years or more in retirement, benefits should be increased. Because many women have taken time out of the paid workforce to care for family, we want their work as caregivers to be credited. We would also like to see that a modest across-the-board benefit increase be given to all Social Security beneficiaries.

Keep in mind that 76 million Baby Boomers are now retiring and we must assure them that Social Security will “be there” for them. Despite the propaganda campaigns funded by conservative billionaires, we can guarantee that Social Security is a permanent and dependable source of retirement and disability income. We also need to make it stronger.

Here’s what NOW hopes you can tell your elected officials:

  • By removing the cap on taxable income (currently set at $113,700), we can fund benefit improvements for everyone and assure that Social Security will “be there” for us over many decades into the future;
  • By adopting a caregiver credit under Social Security to recognize the vital role that women play in our society in raising children and caring for needy family members;
  • By expanding Social Security through improved benefits, like a modest increase for all beneficiaries and a raise in disability benefits that better recognizes their needs; and
  • By making adjustments in the benefit formula and other rules so that widows, single/never married and unmarried women with disabilities can see their benefits improved.

Finally, here’s the message that your elected officials — and the White House – need to hear loud and clear: you are absolutely opposed to any benefit cuts. Tell them you are against the proposed stealth cut to Social Security benefits called the chained CPI. This so-called modest adjustment to the cost-of-living means thousands of dollars in lost retirement income for all beneficiaries. It is oldest retired women (four out of five elderly seniors are women) who have less to live on that will be hurt the most. Under this new cost-of-living calculation, elderly women will lose monthly income equal to nearly two weeks of their food budget!

We must all do our part in assuring a strong future for Social Security so that many more happy birthdays are in store for this vital social insurance program.

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