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3/30/2005

Social Security's Safety Net for Women

Dr. Bitch has a great post about how women’s choices early in their careers have major long-term effects – on everything from the ability to compete in the job market and earn a competitive salary, to the size of their retirement plans and Social Security checks. She raises a host of extremely important issues.

Taking even just a year out of the workforce to have a child sets women back in terms of competitiveness in the job market as well as long-term financial security. Not to mention that women are also more likely than men to take time off to care for elderly parents or relatives. I’m just hoping that the degrees I get as a result of the years I’m taking off to go back to graduate school will make up for the time it means I’m spending outside of the workforce while my peers, men and women alike, earn human capital in the workforce and contribute to their 401K’s and retirement funds. Dr. B is lucky she’s had Mr. B to support her through her education and contribute to their future together. I hope things continue to work out for them. Our system admittedly works best for people who get married; it’s hard to ignore the explicit pressure and financial benefits for doing so in our society.

But what about women who might want to get an advanced degree and have children, all without (god help them) wanting to get married? I can almost hear my father scoffing at the irresponsibility of such a scenario were I to consider it. It is unlikely that a woman making such choices could hope to live as comfortably in retirement (or before) as a man who chooses to obtain the same degree, have a family and work.

Clearly, these are pie-in-the-sky problems so to speak, as many women would love the financial opportunity to obtain an advanced degree and make the choice whether or not to have children afterward. Lots of low-income women don’t have the luxury of even considering quiting their jobs to go back to school, whether they already have children or not. There are many scenarios out there and a host of problems facing women who want to (or have to) work, and of course it isn't the case that all men have it made, either. But if we want women to be able to pursue careers while having families, and have equitable opportunities for economic security and retirement, then society has to adapt. Of course, many changes have been made in the workplace to address these issues, but many more are needed.

One thing is clear to me when thinking about the social and economic issues facing women today -- women still need and depend on the safety net that Social Security provides. The monthly Social Security checks are so critical for women whose retirement and other savings accounts are lower as a result of life choices they make. Due to the way the system currently works, there is inherently more financial risk for women who choose to have children. Even if they do so in the security of a marriage, women take a gamble that the marriage will last or that if it doesn’t they won’t shoulder the financial burden. It seems to me with so many other risks involved in the economic choices women make, the last place we want to add more risk is in the safety net that so many of them rely on at the end of their lives.

 

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