For many young working women, retirement security rests at the bottom of a lengthy priority list loaded with seemingly more pressing concerns. These include finding a satisfying, well-paying job, negotiating a raise and, for many, juggling family responsibilities with career advancement. Social Security, a government program associated with older Americans, might seem even more abstract to demographic whose retirement years are quite a few decades away. But as a panel of experts explained to an engaged crowd of young professional women recently, women face unique challenges in retirement and, for women of all ages, the future of Social Security is a shared concern.
The panel—hosted by the Women’s Information Network (WIN), a professional network of women in Washington, DC—featured young women experts and advocates who debunked common myths about Social Security and pointed out sobering facts about the program’s critical role in ensuring economic security in retirement. (View IWPR’s Flickr to see photos from the event)
Ensuring Your Retirement Security Starts Now
Lara Hinz of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) started with an overview of the unique challenges women face in retirement. Women live longer, earn less, and have less in savings or pensions. In addition, women are more likely to spend time out of the workforce, work in part-time jobs, and live alone in retirement, all of which increase women’s risk of poverty in old age. Then Hinz delivered a wake-up call to the room of young working women: even women who live comfortably in their working years may be poor in retirement. Social Security then plays a vital role in retirement security for women. One in four unmarried women in retirement receive all of their income from Social Security benefits and, without access to Social Security, 58 percent of women over the age of 75 would be living below the poverty line.
Social Security is Your Insurance Plan for Retirement
With 90 percent of women making less than $55,000 per year, nonexistent savings is a real risk to retirement security. Social Security, as Kathryn Edwards from the Economic Policy Institute noted, helps mitigate the risks associated with income insecurity in retirement. But what exactly is Social Security? “Saying that Social Security is money older Americans receive from the government is like saying the Pentagon is the largest office building in the world. It’s not wrong, it’s just not the full picture,” explained Edwards, who is writing a forthcoming EPI textbook for young Americans on Social Security. Social Security is an insurance program, which helps protect workers and their families from the risks—old age, disability, or death—associated with not being able to work.
For young Americans, Social Security is not just money that older Americans receive from the government, Edwards stressed, “this is your insurance that you are already paying into.”
Especially Vital to Women of Color
While women in general face unique challenges in retirement, Youngmin Yi from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research discussed how women of color face challenges that are particularly intense, making Social Security even more important to this demographic. Black women in particular experience higher rates of disability and are more likely than other women to live alone in old age. Seventeen percent of black women between the ages of 65 and 74 are currently living in poverty; without Social Security, 50 percent of black women in this age range would be living in poverty. Latinas also face more pronounced challenges in retirement, as they are more likely to work in low-wage jobs without pensions and are most likely to live longer than other groups of women. Social Security is the most common source of income for older Latinas, further underscoring the critical value of Social Security.
Countering Political Rhetoric with Informed Voters
If Social Security is a vital and efficient, insurance program, then why is it in crisis? Well, it’s not. It’s actually running a surplus—a big one—at $2.6 trillion. Melissa Byrne from the Strengthen Social Security Campaign pointed to current policy proposals that could potentially threaten Social Security’s long-term solvency and to how young women can join the effort to defend the program from future cuts. Far from strengthening Social Security, Byrne noted, efforts at means testing the program—reducing or eliminating benefits for those defined as “affluent”— would undermine Social Security as a universal insurance program, turning the system into a government welfare program. To many people, regardless of political leanings, raising the retirement age seems like a reasonable compromise to ensure Social Security’s long-term solvency. However, raising the full retirement age to 69 is a 13 percent benefit cut, a fact which rarely shows up in talking points (except these).
To ensure that these ideas do not become policy, Byrne suggested that young women stay informed, and most importantly, vote.
Resources for Staying Informed
- Download “20 Ways to Take Advantage of Your Company Benefits Plan,” a brochure from WISER.
- Add IWPR’s Social Security Media Watch Project blog to your RSS feed.
- Visit the State of Working America and view charts on Social Security and poverty.
- Find out how your state is affected by Social Security.
- Sign up for IWPR’s Women and Social Security e-alert
Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.