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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

Privatization of Social Security - A Threat to Women: Part I

by Edith U. Fierst, Attorney at Law Member, Social Security Advisory Council

Even though today's women are employed far more often than their mothers or grandmothers were, they are still not earning as much over a lifetime as do their husbands. Despite what proponents of privatization say, this means that they will continue to need and to receive Social Security widow’s benefits, and sometimes spouse benefits.

In order to understand why this is true, it is necessary to understand the difference between survivor and spouse benefits and how each is computed. A survivor benefit is payable to a widow(er) beginning at retirement age and is the greater of the benefit earned by the deceased spouse or by the widow(er). Since benefits are related to lifetime earnings, if the widow had lower earnings than her husband, her own benefit would be lower than her survivor benefit, and she would be better off with the survivor benefit.

A spouse benefit is payable beginning at retirement age to a person whose husband (or wife) is living, and it is equal to half the higher earner's benefit. If the spouse has a worker benefit which is less than half her husbands benefit, her spouse benefit is the difference between her earned benefit and half of his.

As women are working more, their own earned benefits are increasing. With increasing frequency, their benefits exceed half their husband's benefits. Thus their need for spouse benefits is diminishing or vanishing. But some women of the future, although many fewer, will still qualify for and need spouse benefits.

No major change in the pattern of need for spouse or survivor benefits is expected in the future. Social Security's actuaries predict that even among those retiring in 2015, only about 20 percent of women will have earned benefits greater than those of their husbands. This means their worker benefits will continue to be smaller than their benefits as widows.

Currently, women who qualify for Social Security survivor or spouse benefits (including those divorced after marriages of at least 10 years duration) know they will be paid as a matter of law and without any reduction in the benefits payable to their husbands. This has given great peace of mind to women as they look into the future. It has provided a basic minimum income for elderly widows and enabled them to live independently of their children and with self-respect.

Under the proposal for privatization, this promise of security would disappear. The privatized portion of the Social Security would pay only what has been earned through investments, and all of that would go to the retiree. If a payment is to be made to a wife (or husband, of course, as all provisions in the law are gender-neutral), it must come from the pocket of the one who earned it. This gives him (or her) every incentive to fight against payment to the other. Some divorce lawyers will smell opportunity to make money in privatization, but this is not the kind of an opportunity public policy should encourage.

Moreover, the services of the divorce bar could not do the job for couples in intact marriages. Courts rarely divide assets of married couples, meaning that if the wife is to be assured of income later on, she might have to get a divorce or a legal separation. Therefore, privatization could be a major incentive for marriages to dissolve.

The wife's situation might erupt as an emergency. If she does not act before her husband reaches age 65 and gets access to his individual account, it might be too late. Unlike current Social Security, which pays benefits every month for life, most of the privatization plans make the individual account unrestrictedly available to the beneficiary. He has complete freedom to spend it as he wishes. A likely first use would be to pay debts. Some may take the remainder to Las Vegas. Or use it to endow a girl friend or buy a business.

Probably most would try to spread it over a lifetime but they will have difficulty doing so.

See next issue to learn what can be done.

Excerpted from WOMANSWORD, Vol. 1, Issue 13, February, 1997.





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