My 91-year-old friend Alice, like many elderly women, has outlived her modest savings. All that stands between her and destitution is the $800 check she receives from Social Security and small contributions from a handful of caring friends and relatives. She is not alone. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, DC, estimates that half the women over 65 would fall into poverty without Social Security income because 70 percent of Social Security beneficiaries over 85 are women. For one-third of all unmarried female seniors, Social Security is, in fact, their only source of income.
Worried that his privatization plan is in peril, George W. Bush has been touting its benefits to widows. But they regard his proposals with particular suspicion. Since women tend to live longer than men and spend fewer years in the workforce, they depend more heavily on Social Security during the last years of their lives. They therefore stand to lose the most if they don’t have a guaranteed safety net when they are seniors.
But do women of all ages understand their stake in this debate? An army of economists and pundits have vigorously debunked the President’s spurious claims that Social Security is in “crisis” and that its trust fund will go “bankrupt” in 2042. What they don’t publicize, however, is that the President’s plan for private accounts would deepen the crisis faced by vast numbers of elderly women.
To educate women, the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which represents almost 200 women’s groups with more than 10 million members, held a national press conference in early February to express its strong opposition to private accounts. Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, wants women — who earn a median salary of $30,000 — to understand that “Social Security provides women with life insurance, disability income, and spousal benefits, and all of these will be at risk if privatizers have their way.”
The Bush Administration naturally has it own network of female cheerleaders. Among them is the Independent Women’s Forum, whose job is to fabricate the ideal of the self-made woman who requires no help from anyone, a rugged individualist who can pull herself up by the straps on her stiletto pumps. Just who is this independent self-made woman? Ask the millions of working women who do the unpaid work of caring for their children and their elderly parents or spouses if they need any assistance from social services. Ask the millions of women who work for low wages at Wal-Mart, nursing homes or other women’s homes if they feel like independent self-made women.
Professional women — the real target audience courted by the Independent Women’s Forum — may seem like rugged individualists, but scratch the veneer and you’ll often find that they have benefited from generous state fellowships, government loans, parental sacrifice or wealthy husbands. Scratch a little deeper and you’ll also discover that it was the women’s movement and affirmative action that gave the “self-made woman” a chance to walk through what were once closed doors.
The Independent Women’s Forum, for example, wants to persuade me that I’m a self-made woman. But I’m not. Back when Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate Republican, was governor, New York State paid for my undergraduate education. The citizens of California, who once understood that a highly skilled workforce is what would fuel California’s economic engine, funded my doctoral education. As a result of affirmative action, universities began hiring women faculty members, and I repaid my debt for all this assistance by teaching thousands of university students.
The truth is that hardly anyone is “self-made.” Every day, we use sewer systems, ride on Interstate highways or subways, surf the Internet and send kids to schools that we created by investing in our society’s public life.
Crucial as it is for women’s long-term economic security, Social Security is not perfect; even now it discriminates against low-income workers, the majority of whom are women, because they pay more than their fair share of the payroll taxes that fund the system. So what’s the solution? Why not exempt people who earn less than $30,000 from payroll taxes? Instead of keeping the cap at $90,000, why not raise it so that the wealthiest among us, those with the greatest financial security, can help those with the least? With this one progressive change, Social Security would bulge with surplus funds well into the next century.
We live in a world in which none of us know who will lose a job or become ill and need a helping hand. Real reform in Social Security should express our core conviction that we’re not isolated, self-made men and women but a society of individuals who should care for the most vulnerable. It is not only unfair to allow elderly women to live in poverty — it’s also immoral.
Ruth Rosen, professor emerita of history at the University of California, is the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. This article appeared in the April 11, 2005 issue of The Nation.