Women grow more radical with age: Winning older voters in 2020

Women grow more radical with age: Winning older voters in 2020
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According to Gloria Steinem, “Women may be the one social group that grows more radical with age.” That’s good news for Democratic candidates, especially those who make addressing older women's growing economic vulnerability a centerpiece of their platforms. Regardless of their ages or how far left they tilt, all candidates will need older voters, who have historically had higher turnout, to win the nomination and the general election.

Appealing to older women helps candidates expand their bases but also reach younger women voters in the “sandwich” generation whose fates are intertwined with their elders as they shoulder greater caregiver responsibilities to aging relatives and children without adequate supports, such as paid family leave or universal childcare. 

Amid calls for generational change and passing the torch, candidates must not overlook the reality that old, young, and everyone in between share interests and linked lives. Unsexy “senior” issues like Medicare, rising prescription drug costs, and Social Security also affect younger people caring for the old. 

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As a 30-year-old graduate student confided to me, “One big reason I’m not sure I want a kid is because I am my parents’ retirement. That’s just how it works in immigrant families unfortunately. The energy it would take to raise a kid well is overwhelming. I don’t think I can handle taking care of my parents and having a child at the same time.”

Embracing age doesn’t just mean emphasizing candidates’ decades of experience or grandparent status. All candidates should develop a comprehensive platform to address the economic vulnerability of women 65 and older. They should also move toward concrete policy proposals to alleviate rising income inequality among women across age, class, race and ethnicity lines.

Many have positioned themselves as unapologetically progressive, promising support for racial justice, reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights, immigration reform and universal health care.

However, prioritizing ways to place women on more secure financial path as they age will help them garner support among white working-class and college-educated women and could help increase their appeal to pivotal Latin and black voters.

While overall poverty rates for older adults have declined from 35 percent in 1959 to 9.2 percent in 2017, significant gender differences in late-life poverty persist. In 2017, the poverty rate for women over 65 was 10.5 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for men. My analysis of poverty data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey has also found that the proportion of older women in poverty increases as women age

Women of color have even higher poverty rates, with the highest found among older Hispanic women (37.2 percent) who lived alone. Sociologist Deborah Carr’s work illustrates how socioeconomic status, race and gender can disadvantage seniors of color who have spent a lifetime burdened by racism, economic hardship, and inadequate health care, among many challenges. While Boomers receive a lot of derision for their privileges, they’re also not immune to financial hardships like growing student loan debtfood insecurity and homelessness.

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Women face greater threats to their economic well-being in old age due to more frequent interruptions in paid work from caregiving responsibilities, divorce, labor market discrimination and an outdated Social Security system that favors women eligible to collect their husband’s benefits and disadvantages both divorced and never married women. Rutgers public policy professor Jocelyn Elise Crowley’s research on divorce over 50 paints a stark picture of the economic hardships women face after a split in late life.

“Women’s golden parachute was to find a husband who was being paid a living wage, put up with him for at least 10 years and then draw his Social Security,” says Josey Cooper, a single, divorced 72-year-old woman who relies on a monthly income of $966 comprised of social security benefits and a small state disability pension. She lives in low-income housing in Portland, Oregon. “When I began work in 1964, women’s wages were about 50 percent of men’s.  dd to that time out for children and other cultural reasons for non-work and you have the building in which I live: 42 units with six of them occupied by single men, one heterosexual couple, and the rest low-income, single senior women, most of whom have been single mothers.”

While these prospective voters may seem like a slam dunk, Democratic candidates must convince them that they understand their plight, their years of unrewarded hard work, and more importantly, that they have a plan to address their precarious economic reality.

While low-income women of color face the greatest economic disadvantages in late life, and working-class white women like Josey and her neighbors aren’t far behind, well educated, white middle-class women are also not immune to increased vulnerability and income inequality.

In their research on motherhood and earnings inequality, sociologists Paula England, Jonathan Bearak, Michelle Budig and Melissa Hodges find that white women in high-wage, highly skilled jobs pay the highest proportionate motherhood penalties, in terms of lower earnings over time. Because these highly skilled women workers face steeper penalties with diminished work experience, they suffer greater declines in wages when they have children and reduce their labor force participation.

Work-family scholar Kathleen Gerson suggests that one way to alleviate these gaps is by addressing “the need for universal, affordable, high quality day care to help all families, including single mother and dual earning households meet their financial and caregiving responsibilities.”

Addressing older women’s poverty now also requires making sure younger women don’t fall into poverty in the first place, and one way to do that is to tackle the wage gap and paid family leave. Providing more leave options and mitigating wage discrepancies early on in women’s working lives will ensure they have accrued the highest possible earnings by the time they retire. But first, flaws in the structure of the Social Security system need fixing. The Social Security Administration bases retirement benefits on the highest 35 years of earnings and enters a zero for each year “off.” 

Women therefore incur a heavy motherhood penalty, as they average 12 fewer years of paid work compared to men. Replacing zero years with, say, caregiver credits would help safeguard women’s retirement despite this discrepancy.

Several candidates have made past statements vowing to prevent future cuts to Social Security benefits and have called to expand the program, with Sanders and Warren serving as co-chairs of the “Expand Social Security Caucus” in the Senate.

But few have outlined a plan as part of their election platform. A targeted overhaul that addresses the gender inequality built into the Social Security system is a smart way to initiate more sweeping change while also helping the most vulnerable women. 

Making guaranteed paid family leave a campaign priority is a long overdue and necessary step if we ever hope to change entrenched workplace cultures that reward over-work and advancement of those employees that can prioritize work at the expense of their families’ well being and their own emotional and physical health.  

Women often bear the brunt of these expectations, facing pressure to be both devoted caregivers and tireless workaholics. Warren’s proposal to address the wage and leadership gap for women of color is a step in the right direction towards alleviating the consequences of our country’s long history of systemic discrimination.

As candidates burnish their “regular folks” image, they would be wise to worry less about their own ages and more about the country’s graying demographics if they want to appeal to the voters needed to win.

Focusing on reducing the economic disadvantages of older women will not only help reach diverse groups of women for the primaries, but lay the groundwork for the general election and important policy change. Democratic candidates have ample opportunity to step up, as the progressive ally struggling women of all ages deserve. Don’t squander it. 

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the department of social and behavioral sciences at UC San Francisco.