1:00 PM Eastern - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Honoring Social Security's Foremothers #default

March is Women's History Month, a time to reflect on the many important contributions that women have made to our nation. Over the nation's history, women have played key roles, sometimes heralded, more often than not, unheralded, in establishing and improving many of America's most important and most trusted institutions, Social Security is a perfect example.

Frances Perkins, the first female Secretary of Labor, was the first woman to hold any presidential cabinet position. Sometimes called the conscience of the Roosevelt administration, she was a close confidante of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a passionate crusader for improving the lives of all Americans. She was instrumental in the creation of Social Security, a program that would become the nation's most important source of economic security, when wages are lost in the event of death, disability, or old age.

Another mother of Social Security was Professor Barbara Nachtreib Armstrong. The first female law professor in the nation, Armstrong took a leave from Berkeley Law School to head the working group that developed Social Security for President Roosevelt. If not for these strong women, we might not have Social Security today.

The work done by Perkins and Armstrong in birthing Social Security is of enormous importance to all Americans, and especially to women. Because women, on average, live longer than men, because they, on average, earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, and because they are more likely than men to take time out from the paid workforce to care for children and elderly relatives, they are more dependent on Social Security's modest benefits and more advantaged by its progressive benefit structure which provides larger proportionate benefits for those with lower earnings and those with fewer years of paid employment.

The numbers tell the story. Fifty-six percent of Social Security beneficiaries age 62 and over are women, and a whopping 68 percent aged 85 and over are. Divorced, widowed, and never-married women aged 65 and older rely on Social Security for half their income, on average, as compared to 36 percent of the income of elderly single men and 31 percent of the income of elderly couples. Without Social Security, the poverty rate among older women would jump from 11 percent to 48 percent - almost one out of two!

Given these facts, it is fitting that the very first beneficiary of Social Security was a woman, Ida May Fuller, who worked as a legal secretary in Vermont. Ms. Fuller lived to see her 100th birthday. Fortunately for her, while you can outlive savings, you can't outlive Social Security. The economic security and independence that Social Security gave Ms. Fuller has also benefited generations of women who have followed her. All of us benefit from Social Security's secure, guaranteed earned benefit.

For too long, some policymakers have been calling for cuts to Social Security They seem to believe that America's strongest life insurance, disability insurance and retirement income program, Social Security, should be reduced in order to save it. This illogical argument if it were to result in benefit cuts, would be devastating for the women who rely on Social Security and would undermine the essential security that the program gives all of the nation's workers and their families.

Fortunately, the tide is turning against cuts. Powerful, visionary voices are calling for expansion of Social Security. Although many men are calling for expansion, many women are right there with them. They include Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA), and Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), to name just a few. And the women and men who are calling for expansion are right.

Social Security is the most efficient, secure, fair and universal source of life insurance, disability insurance, and old age annuities available. But its benefits are modest by virtually any standard. On average, women 65 years and older receive only about $13,100 per year. Benefits should be increased. Women should receive Social Security credit for time spent out of the workforce caring for children. Social Security should provide wage replacement during periods of parental leave and illness. And the cost of living adjustment should be improved so that benefits do not erode over time as they do now. This would be a fitting tribute to America's women.

Women's History Month is the perfect time to give thanks for visionary women like Barbara Armstrong and Frances Perkins. It is also the moment for all women -- and the men who care about them -- to fight for increased Social Security benefits. Increasing Social Security would be a perfect tribute to honor the legacy of the dedicated women who worked and fought for all of us.

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