Mom's Social Security

December 13, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Could we pause for a moment to pay attention to the other woman? The other other woman? The older other woman?

While a runaway Congress is heedlessly lurching its way toward impeachment, there is another freight train rolling through Washington: Social Security reform.

Last week's White House conference on the future of the retirement fund was nearly lost in the Monica mess. But it is now clear that the debate about Social Security has shifted in the direction of Wall Street. The argument is less about the social or the security and more about privatizing all or some of the national retirement program.

The citizen that the privatizers have in mind when they talk about reform is a savvy young worker in search of a higher rate of return for his deductible dollars. But there were many at the conference reminding us that before we bet the retirement farm on the eternal bull market, we ought to look at the entire picture through another set of eyes: those of the older woman. Especially the older woman who has spent a good deal of her life taking care of her family.

If Social Security reform works for her, it will work for the rest of us. If it doesn't work for this most vulnerable part of the population, it'll be a disaster.

Consider some of the facts of elder female life. Today, the median income of a female citizen is $9,300 a year. About 19 million women make up 60 percent of Social Security recipients and a majority of them get most of their income from the program. A widow in this population is five times as likely to be poor as a widower.

I am among those who have long criticized Social Security for not helping older women enough. But speaking for the defense, the program does a fair job of redistributing income. Homemakers, for example, pay in nothing, but get benefits worth 50 percent of their husband's. A widow will still receive his full benefit. It's not at all clear what would happen under some form of privatization.

There are those who say that the old female profile is old hat and there's some truth to that. In 1940, only 28 percent of working-age women got wages, now 60 percent do. But that doesn't mean that our life patterns, paychecks or pensions are the same as those of men.

Women are still doing most of the care-giving. They spend 11 1/2 years out of the work force looking after kids and parents and husbands. They spend more years working part-time, flex-time, nearby, to accommodate that family. The average woman earns only 74 percent of a male wage. Only 30 percent are in jobs with pensions. And they're likely to live six years longer.

In short, a woman earns less and lives longer. That leaves her with much less to invest in any private account. And much more time to live on it.

One of the great ironies of this debate over the reform is in its political role reversal. The feminist left, long accused of being hostile to mothers at home, is the side worrying about their plight under reform. The family-values right, long advocates of staying at home, are now pushing the reform that depends on earning power.

Many "reformists" of the Cato Institute stripe argue that we shouldn't "protect" women but emancipate them to take charge of their own independent financial future. But emancipating a low-wage worker to fund her private retirement account is a bit like liberating her to split the dinner check with the chief executive officer.

The system that our parents devised during the Depression was not about building personal wealth. It was about reaching out across generations as well as genders, and sharing responsibility for each other.

Now in a time of great prosperity, far too many are willing to undo a social contract for a private one. Not all the "reforms"

being bandied about -- from government investment in the market to raising the wage cap -- are high risk. But in the end, as the president said last week, "When we judge any plan to save Social Security, we need to ask whether it cuts the poverty rate among single elderly women."

We must ask as well whether we really want to send yet another warning message to women that caregivers will give and not receive.

In the coming months, there's one woman we should be worrying about. It isn't Monica. It's Mom.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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