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Bush Puts Biggest Women's Issue Ever On the Table
Published on Tuesday, June 26, 2001 in Newsday
Bush Puts Biggest Women's Issue Ever On the Table
by Marie Cocco
LISTEN to your mother.

Did she complain last winter about heating bills making it tough to get through the month? Has she cut back on getting her hair cut? Has she stopped slipping a dollar or two into the birthday cards for the grandkids? Listen to Mom. And then maybe you will listen more carefully to the Bush administration's commission to privatize Social Security.

The president has put on the table the biggest women's issue of all. It touches more women than abortion or contraception. It matters as much as equal pay for equal work. It is as important-more so-to women who stay at home to care for children than to those who shuttle off to work each day.

The government's biggest program for women isn't low-interest loans for female entrepreneurs or research into breast cancer. It's Social Security.

Turning it into a system relying on individual bank accounts for benefits has far more consequence for women than for men.

"Her account, just based on the facts, folks, is going to be smaller than his," said Deb Briceland-Betts, director of the Older Women's League, which opposes privatization.

Because women earn less than men-even when they work full-time-they will have less to put into a private account. Because women take years off to care for children, they will have fewer years to build up a balance. Because women are more likely to work part-time, they will have less to deposit in the first place.

The current system tries, in some ways, to make up for all this. And private accounts? Who can say? Nobody from the Bush administration has even tried to explain.

Right now, survivors of a wage-earner who dies before retirement get a lifetime, inflation-adjusted benefit every month for themselves and any children under 18. Women who never worked outside the home, and those who have taken years off work to care for children or other relatives, get a lifetime, inflation-adjusted retirement benefit based on a husband's earnings. Women or men who are divorced after 10 years of marriage can claim Social Security spousal benefits-even if their former spouse remarries.

And even with this protection, elderly women are still more likely than elderly men to be poor. We live longer. And we have less to live on. Once a woman reaches 75, the likelihood she will live in poverty is about double that of a man.

"Most women end up widowed, even if they don't start retirement that way," said Virginia Reno, vice president for research at the National Academy for Social Insurance.

By the time a woman is in her 70s, let alone her 80s, life has a way of sending her into economic straits. Widowhood brings an automatic drop in monthly Social Security benefits. A private pension that may have gone only to a husband ends. The value of any remaining pension that is not inflation-adjusted-and few are-has eroded seriously. The bank account already has dwindled.

"Whoever outlives the other has coped with the cost of a final illness, which depletes assets," said Reno.

You have not heard any of this from the Bush White House. What you have heard is how Social Security is going broke (not quite true) and even, according to Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, that it has "no assets" (though as a Social Security trustee, O'Neill just signed a report on the fund's Treasury bond holdings and continued growth in its surplus).

You have heard that the only way to "rescue" this faltering system is to take money out of it-that is, to allow workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts. You have heard these accounts will grow, year after year after year, as markets magically transform them into "wealth." You have heard so very much about accumulation. And nothing at all about the payout.

Will it be a lump sum or an annuity doled out over time? Will husbands be required to share accounts with wives? In a divorce, will this account formerly known as a lifetime Social Security benefit be just another asset to be fought over and may the best lawyer win? Can one spouse bequeath the account to someone other than a surviving spouse -say, a favorite nephew or the local animal shelter? Will women be shielded from inflation into their 80s and 90s? Listen for the answers. Then run them by Mom. Chances are she won't think this is such a great deal.

Copyright © Newsday, Inc.


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