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Social Security: A Lifeline for Latinas

by Mallory Mpare

With talks about the national debt and deficit dominating policy discussions, much attention has been paid to the fabled contributions Social Security makes to the national debt.  As has been said before (but clearly bears repeating), Social Security does not contribute to the national deficit. In fact, poll after poll shows that the American people understand that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit.  Yet it seems that with Social Security still on the table for cuts, this message is not getting through to those who need to hear it most.

How can we make this message resonate? It is important to discuss policy and its wider implications for the economy at large, but we cannot forget that policy is always tied to people. Instead of focusing on the dollars and cents of Social Security maybe we should talk about how changes to the program affect individuals. After all, how long can political leaders continue to ignore the needs of their constituents?

Social Security was created to ensure that the elderly could retire from the workforce in dignity, without fear that after a lifetime of work they might spend their old age in poverty. Today, Social Security is a crucial source of income for many Americans.  An IWPR report details how, even in the midst of efforts to scale back benefits, people are becoming increasingly reliant on Social Security as a source of income. Though men’s reliance has increased more than women’s, the degree ofreliance is greater for women and people of color who tend to have fewer alternative sources of income.

To supplement its report, IWPR released a fact sheet which details the importance of Social Security to Latinas in the United States. Yes, Social Security is designed to redistribute income to low earners and yes, it currently has policies that disproportionately benefit women.

However, it is impossible to fully compensate for a lifetime of gender inequality in wages.

Compound this with labor market discrimination based on race and ethnicity and many Latinas are bound to encounter economic insecurity in old age.  Additionally, Latinas have a higher life expectancy—89 years compared with 85 years for women of all races and ethnicities combined—and tend to be concentrated in low-wage jobs without pensions.

Latinas in the United States account for at least 1.7 million of the total 52.5 million Social Security beneficiaries. After age 64, few Latinas receive income from sources other than Social Security. In fact, only 27 percent of Latinas aged 64–74 report any income from assets and this source of income becomes even scarcer with age (only 21 percent of  those 75 years of age and older report having any income from assets). Yet asset income is the most common source of additional income for older Latinas, after Social Security.

Although many older Latinas rely on Social Security, the benefits they receive from the program are relatively modest. Among Americans aged 75 and older, women as a whole receive average annual benefits of $11,585.  But Latinas of the same age range receive on average just $8,975 in Social Security benefits.  Still, these modest benefits constitute by far the largest share of income for older Latinas. Eighty percent of Latinas aged 75 and older rely on Social Security for at least half of their income and more than half rely on Social Security for all their income.

In other words, for older Latinas, Social Security is not merely a safety net; it’s a lifeline.

Mallory Mpare is the Communications Manager at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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