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Putting the Pieces Together: How Social Security Supports Black Women

by Mallory Mpare

The longer Social Security remains on the table for cuts as part of a comprehensive debt reduction plan, the more nervous those close to the program should be. And with good reason. Social Security was conceived as a protection against the risks—such as disability or lack of employment at older ages –that might lead to poverty. It is meant to work in conjunction with other retirement plans or savings as a critical piece of a comprehensive economic security plan. In the aftermath of the Great Recession and in the midst of economic recovery—when unemployment is high (9.1 percent unemployment as of May 2011)— it seems an especially inopportune time to discuss actions which might make people even more vulnerable to the very circumstances Social Security protects against.

While Social Security has benefited men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and income levels, the impact of proposed cuts to Social Security on women of color is particularly troubling. Black women experience higher rates of poverty, are concentrated in low-wage jobs, have fewer employee benefits, and are less likely to work in jobs covered by pensions. This combination of circumstances makes black women particularly vulnerable to economic insecurity at older ages.

Following a fact sheet on the importance of Social Security to Latinas, IWPR released a fact sheet that describes the critical role Social Security plays in the lives of many black women. To begin with, the Social Security benefits received by black women are modest. Black women over the age of 62 average $961 per month in benefits as retired workers. Still, Social Security is the most common source of income for black women aged 62 and older—received by 49 percent of black women aged 62–64, 83 percent aged 65–74, and 88 percent of black women 75 years and older. In fact, a solid majority of black women aged 75 and older rely on Social Security for at least four-fifths of their income.

What would happen to these women if Social Security disappeared? Simply put, without the income received from Social Security many more black woman would live in families or as individuals with incomes below the poverty threshold. If you think this is an exaggeration (as some must, considering the attacks on the program), think again. Even with the program as it stands today, more than one in four black women aged 75 and older lives with an income below the poverty threshold. Without Social Security benefits, six out of ten of these women would live in poverty. When we talk about Social Security beneficiaries, images of the elderly are easily brought to mind. However, 26 percent of black women who receive Social Security do so not by consequence of reaching retirement age, but because of disability. This contrasts to the 12 percent of white women and 14 percent of all adult women combined who receive Social Security benefits due to disability and not age. In other words, for disability benefits alone Social Security is especially important to black women.

It is hard to tell when attacks on Social Security will stop. One thing is for certain: the puzzle of economic security is incomplete without a strengthened Social Security program.

Mallory Mpare is the Communications Fellow with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Social Security on the Rocks: What’s at Stake for Younger Women

By Jennifer Clark

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

Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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.

Top 5 Recent IWPR Findings

By Jennifer Clark

When IWPR posted a “Top 5” list of our most revealing research findings in December, we were so encouraged by the level of interest our readers showed in the post, that we decided to turn it into a regular roundup. Although intending to compile another “Top 5” list, the first four months of 2011 were so action-packed that we couldn’t limit ourselves to just five. From Social Security to employment discrimination, here are the top IWPR findings from 2011 (so far):

1.       Without access to Social Security, 58 percent of women and 48 percent of men above the age of 75 would be living below the poverty line.  If you watch cable news, read reputable newspapers, or even tune in to late night television, you would get the impression that the Social Security system, which helped keep 14 million Americans over the age of 65 out of poverty in 2009, is broken. Social Security does not contribute to the deficit and is forbidden by law to borrow money to pay for benefits.  In fact, Social Security is actually running a surplus—a big one—at $2.6 trillion, an amount that is projected to increase to $4.2 trillion by 2025.

2.       Although many groups advocate for immigrant rights at the local, state, or national levels, very few advocate specifically for the rights of immigrant women. A new IWPR report, Organizations Working with Latina Immigrants: Resources and Strategies for Change, on the challenges facing Latina immigrants in the United States, explores the specific challenges faced by immigrant women—higher poverty rates than their male counterparts and greater risk of sexual, domestic, and workplace violence—and spotlights the organizations that are trying to help.

3.       The gender wage gap has narrowed only 13 percentage points in the last 55 years. With the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings stagnating at 77 percent in recent years, IWPR projected that, if current trends continue, the gender wage gap will finally close in 2056—45 years from now. In terms of how the gender wage gap breaks down by occupation, IWPR also found that women earn less than men in 107 out of 111 occupational categories, including female-dominated professions like teaching and nursing.

4.       Women’s career and life choices do not completely explain  the gender wage gap. IWPR’s new report, Ending Sex and Race Discrimination in the Workplace: Legal Interventions That Push the Envelope—a review of over 500 sex and race discrimination settlements –offers distressing evidence of the factors that keep women’s median earnings lower than men and keep women out of better paid jobs. These include discrimination in hiring, sexual harassment of women trying to work in male-dominated jobs, preventing women from getting the training that is required for promotion (or only requiring that training of women), and paying women less for the same work than men. The report finds that ensuring transparency in hiring, compensation, and promotion decisions is the most effective means for addressing discrimination.

5.       On-campus child care centers meet only five percent of the child care needs of student parents. IWPR’s report, Improving Child Care Access to Promote Postsecondary Success Among Low-Income Parents, explores the challenges facing 3.9 million student-parents, 57 percent of whom are also low-income adults, enrolled in colleges across the U.S. Costly off-campus care centers—in many states the cost exceeds median income—are unrealistic for many, leaving some student parents devoting up to ing 70 hours per  week to jobs and caregiving, leaving little time for classes or studying. Postsecondary education provides a path to firmer economic stability for low-income families, but without child care on campus, the path often seems more like an uphill climb.

6.       Both businesses and employees in San Francisco are generally in support of paid sick days, as the nation’s first paid sick days legislation sees benefits four years after passage. San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance (PSLO) went into effect in 2007.  Four years later, IWPR analyzed the effects of the ordinance in the new report, San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance: Outcomes for Employers and Employees, which surveyed over 700 employers and nearly 1,200 employees.  Despite claims from opposing groups that this kind of legislation is bad for small businesses, IWPR’s survey found that two-thirds of employers in San Francisco support the law, including over 60 percent of employers in the hotel and food service industry.

Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Telling the Real Story on Social Security

This blog is also published on IWPR’s Social Security Media Watch Project.

by Caroline Dobuzinskis

In political debates and media reports, the dialog on Social Security has recently focused on budget numbers. The program is often mistakenly tied to the deficit despite the fact that by law it cannot borrow money to pay for benefits and thus cannot contribute to the deficit. But the bigger story is being missed: the fact that Social Security directly affects the lives of many Americans including seniors, the disabled, and widows and children who are eligible for survivor benefits.

The program has a long history, and across its nearly eight decades it has expanded to include more people under its protective umbrella.  Fundamentally, once a person becomes eligible as a permanently disabled worker, retiree, or spouse or widow of a retiree, benefits last as long as one lives and are adjusted for inflation each year. While the benefits of Social Security are especially important to women because of their lower lifetime earnings and longer lives, men are becoming increasingly reliant due to shifts in retirement saving patterns and the recent severe recession. Many children, whose parents have died or become disabled, rely on Social Security insurance benefits, as do disabled children, including the adult disabled children, of working parents or grandparents who worked.

Many organizations have begun to tell this important part of the Social Security story.

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) recently began collecting input about how people had been affected by Social Security on its Facebook page—you too can tell your story here. By completing the sentence “Because of Social Security, I can…” respondents have offered insight into their specific needs that the program is currently meeting. “Because of Social Security, I am able to get the medical attention that I need, eat, buy toiletries, pay my electric bill as I am disabled,” said one commenter.

One perhaps somewhat harsh reality is that Social Security benefits, which are very modest (the typical woman 65 or older receives $10,915 annually),  give enough support to lift many Americans out of poverty—more than 14 million Americans aged 65 and older would be poor without Social Security benefits. Another commenter on NWLC’s Facebook page said that she would be homeless without access to Social Security insurance benefits.

The program also offers support to those with disabilities or supporting disabled individuals. “I am able to take care of my autistic grandson who would be in foster care or a group home without me,” said one commenter on NWLC’s Facebook page.

The Older Women’s League (OWL) collected similar narratives for a video that shows the range of women who receive benefits from Social Security.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the program in 2010, the Frances Perkins Center started the Social Security Stories Project:  “an opportunity to join thousands of Americans in showing that you are part of how Social Security has transformed our country, our economy and our people – young and old.”

The center is named for Frances Perkins who observed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 and went on to become Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Perkins helped establish the Social Security program, which FDR called “a cornerstone of his administration.”

Visitors to the website can submit their stories directly to the site.  See them all on their webpage and watch the video.

We hope that by continuing to spread these stories, the focus can shift to the dire impact that cuts to the program would have on many Americans and their families.  Besides, we are a wealthy country that can well afford to take care of our elderly and disabled and their families.

Other related videos:

Don’t Make Us Work ‘Til We Die

A new video from Social Security Works looks at the alternate reality of older workers who would be  unable to retire, and would have to keep on waiting tables, drilling construction sites, and working other strenuous jobs if the Social Security retirement age were raised further.

Scrap the Cap

Produced this year by OWL National, an animated video starring fictional versions of Whoopi Goldberg and Glenn Beck debating the importance of the Social Security program.

Social Security: Real Stories

Produced by the Social Security Administration’s Open Government Initiative, a video collection of testimonials from Americans about how Social Security has been a source of support.

President Obama’s Weekly Address: Honoring Social Security, Not Privatizing It 

In his address on August 13, 2010, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Social Security  President Obama told Americans that he would “honor” Social Security—not privatize it.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Women Thrown Under the Bus (Again)

by Heidi Hartmann

Friday evening (4/8/2011) while the Democrats and Republicans were negotiating their budget deal for the remainder of FY 2011, as the news began to trickle out, we learned that once more, women are being thrown under the bus.

True, the Republican negotiator, John Boehner, Speaker of the House, wanted more anti-woman stuff he didn’t get—a ban on Planned Parenthood receiving any women’s health services funds from Title X.  But because of President Obama’s willingness to compromise (as reported by  The Washington Post), Boehner did win a prohibition on the use of DC taxpayers’ funds to provide abortions to low-income women in DC—in other words, thanks to Boehner and Obama, we DC residents can no longer use our own, locally-generated tax dollars to fund abortions for poor women.  Women thrown under the bus by our president!

Sunday morning we awoke to hear on the news interview shows that President Obama will propose ways to rein in the federal debt, both by raising taxes and reducing costs in programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security in a major speech on Wednesday (4/13/11).  While raising taxes is potentially good news for women, who rely on government programs more than men do, and so will be helped by added revenues, reducing costs in programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security is almost certainly disastrous news for women.  In other words on Wednesday when President Obama unveils his long term plan for reducing the US debt, he will almost certainly throw women under the bus again!

Women are 61 percent of adult Medicaid recipients, 57 percent of the 65 and older Medicare recipients, and 57 percent of the 65 and older Social Security recipients. Women also rely on Social Security more than men do:  as of 2009, 50 percent of women aged 65 and older and 35 percent of men of the same age range relied on Social Security for 80 percent or more of their income.

With so many more people more reliant on Social Security for retirement income than ever before (given the fall in pension fund balances, savings, and home equity), cutting Social Security benefits in any way (including by raising the retirement age) should be a non-starter for any serious policymaker, whether Democratic or Republican, especially because the American public has responded in survey after survey that they’d rather see Social Security taxes raised than Social Security benefits cut.

Medicare is already subject to very significant cost-savings under the health care reform act passed last year and the ability of the Affordable Care Act to deliver on its promise of covering 34 million uninsured Americans hinges on the continued performance of both Medicare and Medicaid.  It’s hard to see how squeezing more cost-savings from these programs can be done without significantly reducing benefits. A better approach would be to institute efficiencies and cost-controls in the entire health care industry.

To protect the gains women have made in the past 50 years and to keep what is left of America’s social safety net from fraying further, concerted political action is needed now.   Check out the websites of Planned Parenthood in Metropolitan Washington, national Planned Parenthood, NOW, National Women’s Law Center, and other women’s groups to find effective ways to increase your political activism. The Campaign for America’s Future is organizing an email campaign to let the President know what you would like him to say in Wednesday’s speech.

After the speech, please make your opinions known to Congress as they debate the FY 2012 budget, raising the ceiling on the federal debt, and potential cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  Women have much to lose from further spending cuts, as well as from a failure to raise the debt ceiling.

Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Young Americans and Social Security

By Youngmin Yi

Bloggers, policy experts, and politicians are urging young Americans to care more about Social Security, whether they are asking us to love it, hate it, tweak it, or scrap it. But the results are already in: we care.

And if we could have it our way, Social Security would be here forever.

According to findings from an AARP report, the vast majority of people of all ages believe that Social Security is important, including 90 percent of those aged 18-29. A recent Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) survey confirms this sentiment among young adults: 63 percent of those aged 18-39 don’t support cutting Social Security benefits for deficit reduction and more than 60 percent of the group don’t think we pay enough for Social Security.

People my age (somewhere in my 20s) have grown up knowing and expecting that Social Security will be there for us in the future. Another IWPR report shows just how vital the program is for older Americans. It provides 50 percent or more of income for more than half of all men and women over the age of 65. Social Security also kept over 14 million people over the age of 65 out of poverty in 2009, 60 percent of whom are women.

In the wake of the Great Recession, American households saw their savings, home equity, and investments slip away, leaving many scrambling for resources. Pension payouts and asset values rise and fall with the tumultuous economy, and earnings remain uncertain in the face of high unemployment. But Social Security has remained a steadfast source of income in both good and bad times.

It is clear that Social Security will be important when we face retirement. But as the discussion remains focused on current retirees and deficit projections for future decades, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Social Security debate needs our attention now and will affect us – young workers – more than anyone else.

Why is our voice important now?

Some of us already need Social Security.

If you’re like me and my friends, the term Social Security conjures up images of old age and years that lie far ahead. However, as of December 31, 2010, approximately 3.2 million children under the age of 18 were receiving Social Security benefits as children of disabled, deceased, or retired workers. 949,000 disabled children over the age of 18 were receiving benefits, as well. More than a third of Social Security beneficiaries are not retired workers. To some among us, Social Security is not only a promise of security when we are old, it is vital now.

We are already paying for and earning our retirement security.

Take a look at your most recent pay stub. It shows that you have had 4.2 percent of your wages withheld for the payroll tax, and therefore, Social Security; before the December 2010 tax package was passed, that amount was 6.2 percent of wages.  The inflammatory media and disconnected politicians have hammered away at the misguided notion that the exhaustion of the Social Security trust fund means ruin for us all. Their hypocrisy lies in the fact that younger people are told to worry and care about our future, yet policymakers give us even more of a reason to worry by threatening to cut and weaken the very program that would ensure income security for us in old age. Meanwhile, working Americans, including those our age, have been paying into Social Security with the expectation that we will receive the benefits that we have earned when it comes time to claim them.

Young Americans want Social Security to stay and stay secure.

We’ve heard the miscalculated and misrepresented statistics and the apocalyptic fear-mongering about this vital program. Now, it’s time that the naysayers listen to what young people have been saying all along.

Youngmin Yi is the Mariam K. Chamberlain Fellow for the 2010-2011 academic year. Originally from New Jersey, she graduated from Wellesley College in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and French.

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