Kristin Maschka

(WOMENSENEWS)–Tomorrow, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and other congresswomen–Hilda Solis, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Lois Capps–will host a forum in Washington, D.C., to air out the reasons for preserving Social Security, in the name of women, from President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security.

Someone asked me which I would choose, Social Security or private accounts. I said neither, because both need fixing in order to fairly protect mothers.

Social Security is the only option for protecting those who sacrifice earnings to care for others. But let’s remember that Social Security–for all that it might do to protect many women–is far from perfect in its treatment of women.

Historical documents make it clear that the council that constructed Social Security in the late 1930s purposefully chose to discourage women from working outside the home, to reward married men by giving them a bonus if they had a "dependent" wife, to encourage men to work by linking benefit levels to years worked and income earned.

The council–which included women–wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: Women should stay married since their economic security was tied to their status as a dependent of a wage-earning husband.

The Social Security Council was a product of its time. One participant noted approvingly that the proposal on the table would "take away the urge" of married women to go back to work and "compete with single women."

Another member defended the proposal to provide benefits to wives "in that you are doing something real for the man" because he would receive more income.

Another argued for lesser benefits for widows since a single woman can live more cheaply than a single man because "she is used to doing her own housework whereas the single man has to go out to a restaurant."

All of this can be found in verbatim accounts of all the meetings of the Federal Advisory Council that produced the 1939 amendments to the Social Security Act.

‘He’ Is Eligible, ‘She’ Is Wife

The proposal ultimately submitted to Congress used the terms "husband," "he" and "him" when referring to an individual eligible for "primary insurance benefits," and the terms "wife," "she" and "her" when referring to "wife’s insurance benefits."

Even the checks for the "wife’s insurance benefits" went to the husband not the wife.

Sixty-five years later, after a sea change in the number of employed women, the number of divorces and the perception of women as independent citizens, we are still living with both the old values and the results.

Most married women who are employed at some point in their lives make contributions to Social Security but see no net benefit for having worked for pay. They will claim the larger spousal benefit based on their husband’s higher earnings, a benefit due to them regardless whether they were ever employed.

A single-earner couple, by contrast, receives over 30 percent more in benefits than a dual-earner couple that earns the same amount.

The higher earner in the marriage, still nearly always the husband, controls the bulk of the Social Security benefits and the bulk of the private retirement assets both during the marriage and after a divorce.

Perhaps most troubling, we reward mothers, and anyone who gives up earnings in order to care for others, with financial dependency and increased risk of poverty in old age.

Private Accounts Offer No Resolution

We can continue to debate the folly or wisdom of a new system of private accounts, but doing so does not solve these problems.

The President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security–convened by President Bush in 2001 to create proposals that included private accounts–says private accounts would apply a community property principle in the event of divorce.

During the marriage, however, the lower-earner would not have joint ownership and control of the private account. The contributing spouse would control the private account. As with Social Security benefits and existing private retirement accounts, the lower-earner would end up as a dependent rather than an equal partner who has earned an equal right to control and ownership of the assets.

During a marriage one spouse would be able to direct–without the other’s consent–some of his or her Social Security contributions into a private account. That would decrease the contributions used to calculate the other’s Social Security benefits.

65-Year-Old Remedies

For the past 65 years, people have been proposing fiscally responsible remedies to the real problem of the second-class treatment of "second" earners.

These include crediting lower earning spouses and single parents who provide care with an amount of credit toward Social Security for that unpaid work. They also include requiring spousal consent for changes to retirement assets.

There is also a proposal for "earnings sharing" that would equally divide total household contributions–to both Social Security and private accounts. This would give each partner true ownership of his or her half.

We can design a comprehensive retirement system in which couples can choose to share paid work in the way that works best for them without rewarding or penalizing any of those choices.

Such a system would honor the marriage promise by ensuring that control and ownership of retirement assets and benefits acquired during a marriage are shared equally by spouses while they are married and after a divorce, and in which Social Security benefit levels are related to all contributing work, whether it’s paid employment or the unpaid work of caring for family members.

Women and mothers cannot afford to let this debate continue without calling attention to the fundamental values at stake.

Women live longer than men and are more likely to run out of personal savings.

Mothers sacrifice earnings in order to care for children and the elderly leaving them with lower personal savings and lower Social Security benefits. Yet without Social Security, poverty rates for elderly women would be more than 50 percent.

Before another 65 years passes, we have to take this opportunity to insist on changes to protect the economic security and personal autonomy of women, mothers and anyone who cares for others.

Kristin Maschka resides in Pasadena, Calif., and is president of Mothers and More, a national organization for mothers based in Elmhurst, Ill.