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National NOW Times >> Fall 2012  >> Article

Time to Advocate for Social Security Modernization

After years of hard work, women should be able to count on an economically secure retirement. But the truth is that many older women have barely enough to get by. Most senior women do not have pensions of their own, and many do not have sufficient savings. Additionally, women's earnings are reduced by time out of the paid workforce to care for family, and sex-based wage discrimination costs the average woman hundreds of thousands of dollars over her working lifetime.

In recognition of these facts, NOW Foundation developed a report with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Breaking the Social Security Glass Ceiling: A Proposal to Modernize Women's Benefits proposes a number of adjustments for this crucially important social insurance system that benefits 55 million women, men and children -- a number that will increase as 76 million baby boomers reach retirement.

Foremost among our recommendations is a caregiver credit that would recognize the unpaid work done by those who drop out of the paid labor force to care for children or ill or disabled family members. This credit would cover up to five family service years and would be based on estimated wages roughly equal to the median wage for the relevant time period.

In addition, our report calls for enhancement of survivor benefits -- increasing the amount to equal 75 percent of a couple's combined benefit prior to the spouse's death. This change alone would do much to lower poverty among elderly women.

Other proposed improvements include: an across-the-board benefit increase for all current and future beneficiaries (current average monthly benefit amount for women is about $1,200); enhancing the Special Minimum amount for lifetime low-income earners; paying equal benefits to same-sex married couples and partners; restoring benefits through age 22 for students who are dependent children of a deceased or disabled parent; equalizing rules for disabled widows to match those of disabled workers; and, finally, improving benefits for disabled adult children.

We can pay for these improvements, and simultaneously ensure the solvency of our Social Security system for 75 years or more, quite simply. Removing the cap on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax -- requiring millionaires and billionaires to pay the same rate as the rest of us -- would provide most of the needed resources. In addition, getting our economy back to full employment and raising the minimum wage (do CEOs really need to be paid 364 times what their ordinary workers earn?) would get us the rest of the way there. Our report also points out that the Social Security contribution rate can be modestly increased -- by 1/20 of one percent over 20 years. Polls show that many of these ideas are extremely popular with the public.

Our Social Security system is strong, reliable and enduring. Unlike risky Wall Street investments, Social Security hasn't missed a payment in 77 years. Now is the time to stop talking about cutting benefits -- an idea driven by ideology, not the actual finances of the system -- and start advocating for better benefits.

Read the full report at Watch our joint briefing on Capitol Hill online at C-SPAN.

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