(WOMENSENEWS)–The battle over Social Security age limits can be personified as Conservative Republican Alan Simpson versus Ellen A. Bruce, immediate past president of the Washington-based Older Women’s League, known as OWL.

Simpson, a former senator of Wyoming and now co-chair of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, recently sent OWL a letter calling Social Security "a milk cow with 310 million tits" that warrants changes because Americans are living longer.

To ensure the solvency of Social Security–which is facing a modest long-term fiscal shortfall–the bipartisan, 14-member fiscal commission is expected to recommend on Dec. 1 a gradual increase in the eligibility for full benefits from age 66 to 70.

OWL, with 34 chapters across the nation that advocate for middle-aged and older women, is focused on averting that.

"Opposing the increase in the retirement age is our top priority in 2010, because 1 in 4 older women depends on Social Security for 90 percent of her income," Bruce said in a recent phone interview. "We are going to lobby Congress and the Obama administration full force, pointing out that raising the retirement age is a backhanded way to cut benefits for all retirees, no matter what age they retire."

Bruce says the move will force women in physically demanding jobs to work longer because they have fewer assets for retirement than men.

Cindy Hounsell, president of the Washington-based Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, known as WISER, is equally opposed to a higher retirement age.

"This proposal is the latest attack on the fraying safety net," said Hounsell, whose nonprofit organization provides financial information to low- and moderate-income women ages 18 to 65. "Social Security is a lifeline for older women, because it has becoming increasingly difficult for the average woman to accumulate sufficient assets for retirement, let alone women in low-paying, physically demanding jobs that don’t provide pensions."

Difficulties in Saving

Nearly two-thirds of working women earn less than $30,000 a year, which makes it difficult to save, WISER research indicates. Almost half of these low-paying jobs do not provide retirement plans or 401k plans.

In 1983, Congress became concerned about the impact of longer life spans on Social Security reserves and increased the age for full benefits from 65 when Social Security was established in 1935 to 66 today to 67 in 2022.

The added two-year waiting period–to 67 from 65–will reduce benefits for the average retiree by 13 percent, a loss of more than $28,000 over the course of a typical retirement, projected the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies the labor force, federal budget, deficit and other issues.

Pushing the full-retirement age to 70 would cut benefits another 19 percent, a total of $63,573.

To get the same amount of benefits a worker receives today, a future retiree will have to work an extra year for every year the retirement age is increased, which is impossible for many women in physically demanding jobs, says Hounsell of WISER.

"Unlike women in white-collar jobs who went to college, maids, retail clerks, waitresses and nurses’ aides started working in their late teens and early 20s," she said. "By their mid-50s, they are worn out from standing eight hours a day, moving patients and carrying heavy trays. Many have developed crushing back pain and other health problems."

In 2009, nearly 35 percent of workers age 58 and older held physically demanding jobs, according to an August analysis by the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Economic Policy and Research.

Changes Hit Women Harder

Hye Jin Rho, author of the report, warned that women would be harder hit than men by a higher retirement age because the gender gap increases with age. He found that about 32 percent of women 58 and older held physically demanding jobs compared to 37 percent of men in the same age group.

But when Rho analyzed the distribution of physically demanding jobs at either end of the retirement-age spectrum, he found more men doing heavy lifting earlier and more women stuck with that type of work later.

He found about 37 percent of women in the oldest age group–70 and over–were cleaning houses, stocking shelves and waitressing compared to about 30 percent of women in the youngest age group–58 to 61.

For men those figures were the other way around: About 35 percent of men over 70 were loading trucks, constructing buildings and standing eight hours a day in the kitchens of restaurants versus 38 percent of men between ages 58 to 61.

"Older women are highly motivated to keep working because their financial situation becomes more precarious as they age," said Katherine Klotzburger, founder and president of the Silver Century Foundation in Princeton, N.J., which seeks to change the personal and cultural experience of aging. "Many widows are left with little income because they have lost their husband’s pensions or the couple’s assets were depleted paying for care during their husband’s last illness. Many older women also are supporting their parents or grandchildren."

Proponents of raising the retirement age contend that workers in physically demanding jobs can work longer if they assume less strenuous positions.

"But this is rarely the case," said Bruce, of OWL, who is director of the Gerontology Institute at University of Massachusetts Boston. "For workers in physically demanding jobs, finding new positions is often impossible because they work in industries or geographical areas where jobs are disappearing. As a result, they are forced to retire in their late 50s and early 60s and struggle to survive on reduced Social Security benefits for two decades."

Modest Benefits

Social Security benefits are modest, even if one works to age 66. The average retiree’s benefit is $13,800 annually, less than working full time at a job paying minimum wage.

Women on average receive $2,000 less, because they were paid lower salaries during their working years and left the labor force for several years to raise children or care for elderly relatives.

Momentum for increasing the retirement age grew this spring when the Social Security Trust, the board of trustees that oversees the program, reported that the program’s costs will exceed income from payroll taxes and incomes taxes in 2010 and 2011 because of the recent recession, the worst in 50 years.

Although this situation will reverse beginning in 2012 and the program will be solvent until 2037, prominent Democrats like Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff under President Clinton and co-chair of the fiscal commission, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland joined House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio in calling for an increase in the retirement age.

The proposal will face serious opposition in Congress. In the House, 104 representatives sent a letter to Obama, written by Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, John Conyers of Michigan and Dan Maffei of New York, urging him to reject any proposals to cut Social Security benefits.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent of Vermont, and 11 Democratic colleagues introduced a resolution in the Senate Sept. 30 opposing increases in the retirement age and other proposals the deficit commission might recommend.

"The Social Security system, which has run surpluses for a quarter century, is America’s most successful and reliable retirement program," Sanders wrote. "The Social Security Trust Fund has a $2.6 trillion surplus that is projected to grow to more than $4 trillion by the year 2023. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the year 2039. It will not be bankrupt."

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Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.

For more information:

Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER):

Older Women’s League (OWL):

Silver Century Foundation: