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July 27 2011

Why Are Traditionalist Feminists Wedded to Social Security?

Sabrina Schaeffer

Washington is in a stew about the debt ceiling. With massive spending cuts and significant tax increases on the table, special interests are frantically trying to protect their goodies, from targeted tax breaks to the vast array of spending programs. But why are traditional feminists pulling out the stops to prevent a long-overdue, fundamental reform of Social Security?

Two female Democratic lawmakers - Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) - recently led a contingent of female Democratic colleagues in the House in sending a letter to President Obama, urging him against reforming entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare because they claim it would disproportionately hurt women.

"Social Security and Medicaid," Norton explains "are women's issues." Women will be more hurt by cuts to the program than men "because women live longer, have lower incomes, do not have pensions." Edwards agrees, noting that "Social Security is their security...their groceries, their day-to-day expenses."

At a time when women outperform men academically, are soaring to the top of nearly every professional arena, are earning more than men in some parts of the country, and have more choices than ever before, feminists should move beyond this antiquated view of Social Security as the best we can do for women. The fact is gender imbalance is a serious liability of Social Security.

Norton and Edwards are taking their cues from national feminist groups like the National Women's Law Center, which earlier this year criticized Republicans for considering changes to Social Security. In April the NWLC argued, "women are a majority of Social Security and Medicare recipients and more than two-thirds of the elderly-poor - so they will be disproportionately harmed by these cuts."

What these Democrats and feminist activists are picking up on is that women already suffer under this outdated entitlement program, which doesn't address the needs of modern women and families. Social Security's benefit structure was designed to fit a 1935 family - a marriage in which the husband was the sole breadwinner. Today, more women work outside of the home, choose to marry later (if at all), and divorce more often than 75 years ago. Still Social Security has remained largely static.

By failing to reform the original benefit structure, Social Security today is highly regressive. In fact, single women and less wealthy, two-earner families are in the position of subsidizing more affluent single-earner couples.

Consider, for instance, the problem of the outdated "dual entitlement rule." The architects of Social Security designed the program so that at the time of retirement the spouse with the lower lifetime earnings (usually the wife) would receive either a benefit equal to her own earnings or half of her spouse's benefits. At a time when far fewer women worked outside of the home, this may have made sense. But today stay-at-home spouses who are not contributing financially to Social Security are benefiting at the expense of women working outside of the home, who are required to pay Social Security taxes but don't receive any additional benefits. And this design is particularly pernicious for certain subgroups, like African American women, who are less likely to be married than white women.

But the problems are even more extensive. In 1935, divorce was far less common than it is today. Still the structure of the program has not kept pace. Divorced women then and now must have been married for 10 years in order to receive Social Security benefits based on her former-husband's earnings. That may have seemed generous in the 1930s, but today millions of women who find themselves in bad marriages are penalized by this policy.

Widows are another group that suffers under the current structure. A woman who loses her husband has a choice to receive the greater of either her husband's benefit or her own. Again, at the time of Social Security's inception, far fewer women were contributing outside of the home; but today many working women will find their income at the time of retirement cut dramatically despite years of two-spouses paying into the system.

And single, working women without children who die prematurely receive the harshest punishment. The state reclaims all of their contributions to Social Security, without an option to leave savings to other relatives, friends or charity. ?

The solution for women is not more "wealth distribution;" rather, women need a retirement plan that reflects the changing roles of women and the American family in the 21st century. Individual retirement accounts would give women control over their savings and bring much higher returns that they can pass on to family or charity. What's more, they would also decrease Americans' dependence on the federal government, lower the national debt, and restore the long-term solvency of Social Security.
Women want what we all want today; the freedom to save and invest in a way that reflects the needs of our family and plans for the future.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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