Columbia Daily Tribune, February 4, 2008: Social Security barely keeping retirees afloat

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Published Monday, February 4, 2008

I have recently been acting as a consultant to several older women, two of whom are skirting the edge of poverty as they try to live in the increasingly expensive world around them. Food costs more with every trip to the market. Clothing must be purchased from vendors of used clothing, and utilities and housing upkeep are taking a greater and greater percentage of their income.

Although some women have planned, been lucky, inherited or late-life married, so they have sufficient and stable retirement income, the sad fact is that for many women, the financial picture for retirement is very bleak. Many don۪t fully understand that Social Security will be the most consistent and important part of their income because they tend to overestimate what they will receive from pensions and investments.

Impoverishment in the United States remains a significant issue for older women, even though all folks 65 and older are in better financial shape than they were before the program was enacted. The poverty rates for older black women and female Hispanic elders are about double the level for all older women in the United States, and those without Social Security and living in poverty or near poverty would be even more vulnerable. As to the SSI benefit, the federal Supplemental Security Income has never raised recipients above the poverty threshold. Social Security is far more successful at reducing poverty for older people. Social Security is important for women because it is one program that goes from job to job with the worker, provides steady income that lasts for the life of the retiree and is adjusted to keep pace with the cost of living.

Social Security now is the dominant income source for older Americans, benefiting about 90 percent of those 65 or older, including workers and spouses of workers. Not only do most older women receive benefits, they depend upon them. Eighty-one percent of unmarried men and 87 percent of widowed, divorced and never-married women count on this source for at least half their income, and more than two-thirds of elders depend on Social Security for an even larger portion. For one in three unmarried older women, Social Security is the only source of income.

More women are in the paid labor force today than 20 years ago, and the gender gap in wages is narrowing. But women remain concentrated in low-paying jobs and are more likely than men to experience periods out of the work force. As a result, women are less likely to qualify for a retirement savings program or receive a pension. In contrast, most women working in the paid labor force and women working for their families will qualify to receive Social Security retirement benefits.

Social Security now faces financial challenges associated with an aging society, and the program will require some changes to ensure that it remains strong for future generations. Everyone should save for retirement and participate in whatever pension plans might be available to them, but no one really believes Social Security can do it all. We should understand that a strong, reliable Social Security program forms the basis of economic security for both women and men as they age. It is clearly the best income protection program for the greatest number of people. Without its guarantees, all but the wealthy would experience perceptible reductions in their economic well-being.

Columbian Ann Gowans has a doctorate in social gerontology and medical sociology. She has worked and taught in the field for 25 years. You may reach her via e-mail at

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