Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) once said, “Women have an equal stake in our future and should have an equal voice in our politics.” Indeed, a Harris vice presidency would be a major step toward equalizing women’s voices in politics. That voice is sorely needed on many issues, but few more urgently than in the area of women’s retirement security. Simply put, the financial survival of many older women depends on it. Kamala Harris can use her powerful new position to advance women’s retirement security in crucial ways.
Harris recognizes that historical trends have left too many older women teetering on the edge of poverty, if not downright impoverished. Some 16 percent of women age 65 and older live at or below the poverty line, compared to 12 percent of men. Thanks to job discrimination and wage inequality, women cannot save as much for retirement as men. In 2019, the median estimated household retirement savings for women was only $23,000, compared to $76,000 for men.
Women take more time off work to care for family members, diminishing their ability to save — and lowering their average Social Security benefits. In fact, women’s average monthly benefits are some $300 less than men’s, a significant gap that could cover expenses like medical co-pays, utilities, or groceries. Finally, women typically live longer than men, meaning they have to stretch their limited retirement dollars further.
Kamala Harris recognizes that women of color are impacted even harder by the same socioeconomic forces. According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, the median wealth of single women of color over 65 is four times less than that of their white counterparts. The average yearly Social Security benefit for African American and Latina women is $13,574 and $11,986, respectively. This compares to $14,923 for all female beneficiaries.
These inequities have significant real-life consequences for many older women. A recent report by The Government Accountability Office (GAO) for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging detailed older women’s top concerns about retirement, especially ever-rising living costs. In particular, the women “raised alarms about being able to afford medical procedures or prescription drugs” and reported that they had skipped dental exams and vaccinations “because they could not afford them.”
Kamala Harris is poised to address these challenges from the highest levels of government. In fact, she already has. As a U.S. Senator, she championed gender wage equity legislation and measures to help the middle and working classes achieve greater economic stability. She and running mate Joe Biden have an ambitious plan to expand and strengthen Social Security, including refundable caregiver tax credits and a badly-needed benefit boost for the poorest and oldest retirees, the majority of whom are women.
We strongly support the Biden/Harris plan to mitigate historical inequities and protect older and lower-income women against what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “the hazards and vicissitudes of life” when he signed Social Security into law 85 years ago.
For many years, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and other seniors advocates have endeavored to bring women’s retirement security into the national political conversation. In 2014, we launched Eleanor’s Hope, a public education and advocacy initiative named after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — a true champion of women’s retirement security.
Eleanor’s grandson, Jim Roosevelt, remembers his grandmother talking to him at a young age about this issue. “She spoke about the importance of women being vocal and being heard,” Roosevelt says. “She was a strong supporter of Social Security, which my grandfather, Franklin Roosevelt, signed into law. But she was aware that women face historic economic challenges that need to be addressed.”
Kamala Harris herself noted that “these are challenging times, but I believe getting more women in office is a big part of the solution.” As the first woman vice president, she will be a powerful advocate for women’s economic security from the second-highest office in the land.
Terry O’Neill is an attorney, professor and activist; she served as president of the National Organization for Women from 2009 to 2017. Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.