The solution for women is not more of the same

With the crisis over the debt ceiling looming, everyone wants to have a say in the proposed compromise. Now two female lawmakers — Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) have joined forces with other female Democratic colleagues in the House in writing a letter to President Obama to try to stop proposed changes to entitlements, which they claim will disproportionately hurt women.

According to Norton, “Social Security and Medicaid, as it turns out, are women’s issues.” And Edwards explains, “Social Security is their security … their groceries, their day-to-day expenses.”

Norton and Edwards are right that women are a unique constituency to consider when discussing entitlement reform, specifically Social Security; but their efforts to advance more of the same is misguided.

Social Security's benefit structure has remained largely unchanged since it was established in 1935. The same, of course, cannot be said for women's roles in society. So it’s no surprise that the problems with Social Security for women are countless, but I'll begin with the fact that the current benefit structure remains highly regressive.

Social Security was designed to fit the needs of the 1935 family: namely, a single-earner marriage in which one spouse (usually the husband) was the sole breadwinner. At the time of retirement, the husband would receive 100 percent of his earned benefit, and his spouse received an additional "spousal benefit" of 50 percent of her husband's benefit — even though she did not actually pay Social Security taxes.

This structure, which persists today, favors single-earner families over two-income families. Marriages in which both the husband and wife have to work are often subsidizing wealthier single-earner families. What’s more, it disproportionately hurts African-American women, who are less likely to be married than white women.

What about divorce? In 1935, divorce was far less common than it is today. A divorced woman, then and now, must have been married for 10 years in order to receive Social Security benefits based on her former husband's earnings. That may have seemed generous back then, but today millions of women who find themselves in bad marriages are penalized by this policy.


And widows? A woman who loses her husband has a choice to receive the greater of either her husband's benefit or her own. While in 1935 few women might have been contributing outside of the home, the situation is again far different today. Many women will find their income cut dramatically despite years of two spouses contributing to the system. 


It's always surprised me that women on the left remain so uniformly committed to Social Security. Edwards and Norton are right to be concerned about the effect of Social Security on women. What they seem to ignore, however, is that women are already suffering under this massive entitlement program. 


The solution for women is not more of the same; rather, women need a retirement plan that reflects the changing roles of women and the American family. As in all other areas of life, women would benefit most from the freedom to save and invest in a way that reflects the needs of their family and lifestyle.


Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.