The record number of women legislators on Capitol Hill could have a positive impact on women’s retirement security. More than 100 women were sworn-into office as members of the U.S. House last week.
This new “sisterhood” of lawmakers brings a stronger female perspective to the nation’s retirement challenges — which disproportionately affect women — and the possibility of reversing long-term trends that will decrease women’s financial stability during their senior years.
Historically, women have had fewer assets and income in retirement, and depend more heavily on Social Security to make ends meet. The ongoing gender pay gap – and time away from the workforce caring for family — diminish women’s Social Security retirement benefits. In 2018, women’s average monthly benefits were 21 percent lower than men’s. At the same time, women’s greater longevity means their retirement dollars must stretch over a greater number of years.
As mothers, caregivers, and members of the workforce, most women of the 116th Congress understand these critical issues and are well positioned to affect change. Elle magazine described some of the incoming lawmakers as “women who can’t afford their rent until their new job starts… women who look nothing like Mr. Smith, and who are revolutionizing Washington.”
In fact, studies have shown that female lawmakers elevate policies benefiting women more than their male counterparts do. “We can’t predict X, Y, Z policy will pass, but we can safely say that there will be issues brought to the table that have otherwise not been there,” Rutgers political science professor Kelly Dittmar recently told the online news site, “Vox.”
Of course, improving women’s retirement security begins with protecting the financial health of all older Americans, as victorious candidates in the 2018 midterms promised. Freshman Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen (D), who took time off of work to care for elderly parents, pledged to oppose “any attempt to cut or privatize Medicare and Social Security.”
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) scored an upset victory in Virginia vowing to “protect Social Security and Medicare so we can meet our obligations to seniors, now and into the future.” Incoming New Mexico Deborah Haaland (D) declared, “We must defend Medicare, expand Social Security, and provide tax credits for families who care for their elders.”
Indeed, boosting Social Security and Medicare benefits would go a long way toward improving women’s retirement security. Congress could enact legislation that has languished under previous leadership on Capitol Hill to do just that, including Rep. John Larson’s (D-Conn.) Social Security 2100 Act and myriad bills to enhance Medicare benefits, such as Rep. Debbie Dingell’s (D-Mich.) Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act.
But there is even more to be done to increase elderly women’s financial security:
Gender pay equity
Strengthen and reform the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by putting an end to pay secrecy, enhance workers’ ability to challenge discrimination and bringing equal pay law into line with other civil rights laws.
Create an annual Social Security caregiver credit for each year spent away from the workforce caring for family (up to five years).
Improve survivor benefits
Increase the benefit paid to a surviving spouse to an amount that is equal to 75 percent of the total combined benefits that were paid to the couple prior to the spouse’s death, capped at the benefit level of a lifelong average earner.
Consumer Price Index for the elderly
Adopt the Consumer Price Index for The Elderly (CPI-E) for the purpose of determining cost-of living adjustments (COLAs) for Social Security benefits. This would be especially valuable to women because they live longer.
Boost benefits for beneficiaries 85+
Provide a bump-up in benefits at age 85, which would help older women better keep pace with increases in the cost of living.
These measures would go a long way toward addressing retirement inequities that have been awaiting solutions for decades. None other than Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed Social Security into law, realized the depth of the problem more than 80 years ago. She devoted four decades fighting for gender equality and advancing women’s economic security, which is why our organization launched an educational initiative called “Eleanor’s Hope” in her honor.
“My grandmother’s activism for women’s equity… was based on her boundless optimism that the American people could move mountains if only freed from the fear of want and destitution,” said her grandson, James Roosevelt, Jr., Vice Chair of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare advisory board. “Her hope has yet to be fully realized for too many Americans.”
In 2018, we supported candidates in the midterm elections who shared Mrs. Roosevelt’s vision of freeing the elderly from the “fear of want and destitution.” Most of the candidates we backed were victorious – and nearly thirty of them were women. As the Boston Herald observed on the day the 116th Congress was gaveled into session, “Voters sent a clear message to Washington in the mid-term election: They want real change and they want women to get the job done.”
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.