Rather than address the grim financial realities of Social Security, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing Tuesday to figure out how to strengthen the program for women, who on average receive fewer benefits than men.
“I particularly appreciate Senator Hatch and Senator Wyden’s theme of this hearing,” Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said. “That the debate over Social Security shouldn’t be how much we cut from the program to balance the budget, shouldn’t be about raising the retirement age, shouldn’t be about limiting benefits.”
A panel of four women — an Oregon woman struggling to live off of Social Security, a George Mason professor of public policy, a representative from the American Academy of Actuaries and the chair of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare — testified about the unique struggles women face in retirement.
Because they live longer, tend to work less, and tend to make less than men, women generally pay less into the system and receive fewer benefits that must stretch over a longer period of time, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said. The average monthly benefit of a woman is $1,103, according to panelist Dr. Catherine J. Dodd, chair of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. The average monthly benefit for a man is about $300 more — $1,417.
“We can and we should work to provide better protection against old age poverty, which is disproportionately experienced by women, especially never married and divorced women,” Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said in the hearing. But he cautioned against ignoring the program’s expected $10.6 trillion shortfall over the next 75 years, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates could require a 25 percent payroll tax increase.
“Either we responsibly work to modernize benefits while also addressing Social Security’s financial challenges, or we can kick the can down the road and place the burden on future generations,” Hatch said.
The committee considered proposals to increase certain benefits, such as for caretakers of children or loved ones, and for women who outlive their spouses.
“It’s all about retirement security,” Brown said. “We know that Social Security fundamentally is social insurance that most working families could not afford to buy on their own.”
Wyden declared the meeting productive, and said he would carry with him the story of Barbara Perrin, who essentially lost her home and savings following the 2008 financial crisis, and is struggling to find work.
“Ms. Perrin is a woman who had done everything right,” Wyden said. “Everything right. And now, through factors beyond her control is, based on her genes, looking at the prospects of living 20 more years. And her income is now $775 a month.”
She’ll be able to figure out her finances, he added, but other women won’t. “I think it’s very clear that there’s a challenge out there,” he said, and promised to work with Republicans on legislation. Hatch said he’s willing to work with Democrats, but any real change would require the president’s involvement, which is unlikely.
Brown plans to reintroduce the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013, which he cosponsors, that would change the rules so that middle- and low-income earners would receive more benefits, and phase out the current taxable cap of $113,700.
A Republican Congress likely won’t take up the bill.
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