elderley couple seated at a bench
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(WOMENSENEWS)–A national coalition of advocates for women’s financial security is proposing sweeping changes in the Social Security system to end the gender gap in retirement benefits.

They want public retirement credits for people who take time off from paid employment to serve as family caregivers, for retirees who have worked in low-wage occupations and for widows.

These benefits, they say, would decrease the nearly 11-percent rate of poverty among senior women, which is 50 percent higher than that of male retirees.

But some supporters warn that the plan — which takes a comprehensive, long-range approach to preserving a key component of the safety net — won’t gain much immediate traction in Congress, which is focused on legislation that will boost their respective parties’ chances of winning in the November election.

“Caregiver credits are greatly needed because 80 percent of American women have children by the time they are 44 years old,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the Washington-based MomsRising, a grassroots organization focused on economic security for families. “But as we have seen with the Affordable Care Act, it may take several years before Congress adopts these changes.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner said the proposals will, however, help build public support for changes in policies that recognize women’s caregiving for children as well as elderly and disabled family members.

Cindy Hounsell, president of the Washington-based Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, or WISER, likes the plans but also cautions against expecting them to take effect soon.

“There are many good ideas in this report, but it will be difficult to implement them in the current political environment,” Hounsell said in a phone interview. “In addition to the continuing debate in Congress over how to decrease the deficit and unemployment, lawmakers will be concentrating on the Affordable Care Act for the rest of 2012 and probably 2013 too.”

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the National Organization for Women Foundation (NOW) and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare issued the proposals in a May report, “Breaking the Social Security Glass Ceiling.”

Because women earn lower wages and take time out of the work force for caregiving, they receive smaller Social Security checks than do male workers. In 2009, the average annual Social Security income of a retired man was $15,620 compared to $12,155 for a woman.

Women Hit Harder

“This disparity hurts women because they live longer than do men and have fewer assets for retirement,” said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the leading U.S. think tank that focuses on issues of American women. “Congress must modernize the Social Security system to reflect women’s roles as breadwinners and caregivers,” she said at an event in May for the release of the report.

Despite dramatic increases in women’s participation in the labor force since Social Security began paying monthly benefits in 1939, Hartmann said that for far too many women, retirement is the culmination of a lifetime of low pay and income inequalities.

The report recommends that a worker who left or reduced participation in the work force to provide care to an elderly family member or a child under age 6 receive imputed earnings for up to five family service years. The imputed wages for a year would be added to the worker’s other earnings, if any, to bring the total up to 50 percent of that year’s average annual wage of $1l,758 in 2011.

In addition to recommending equal benefits for same-sex married couples and partners, the proposal also calls for improvements in survivor benefits.

“Women living alone often are forced into poverty because of benefit reductions stemming from the death of a spouse,” said Carroll Estes, board chair of the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which led the fight against the George W. Bush administration’s proposal to privatize Social Security. “Providing a widow or widower with 75 percent of the couple’s combined benefit treats one-earner and two-earner couples more fairly and reduces the likelihood of leaving the survivor in poverty.

Changing Minimal Insurance Amounts

To help retirees who have spent most of their working lives in low-wage jobs, the report called for several changes in the calculations of the special minimum primary insurance amount. In 2012, a worker with 30 years of earnings received a minimal benefit of $790.60 per month.

If that were increased to 150 percent of the poverty level for a single aged person, the retiree would receive $1,307. The proposal also calls for providing up to 10 years of credit for family caregiving to boost benefits of these workers, most of whom are women who work in female-dominated industries.

“It will help overcome the long-standing discrimination that women have faced in the Social Security system,” said Linda Meric, executive director of the Milwaukee-based 9to5, National Association of Working Women, the largest national membership organization of working women in the U.S.

Terry O’Neill, president of the Washington-based NOW Foundation–the largest grassroots feminist organization in the nation–hopes that the report will become a rallying cry in November for female voters who are concerned about the sluggish economy and its long-term impact on their financial security.

“Women want reforms like those in our report and will reject politicians who call for austerity, a code word for cutting safety net programs like Social Security, which women rely on disproportionately,” O’Neill said in a telephone interview.

“America can’t afford not to provide fair and adequate benefits because so many women are financially vulnerable,” she said. “In 2010, 46 percent of unmarried elderly women relied on Social Security for 90 percent of their income. We also must protect Social Security for future generations because the sluggish economy is making it difficult for young people to survive, let alone save for retirement.”

Sharon Johnson is a New York freelance writer.

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