March marks Women's History Month, a time to highlight women's contributions to society and role in making our country what it is today.
To call Frances Perkins (1880-1965) a trailblazer would be to put it very mildly. Perkins was selected by FDR as Secretary of Labor in 1933, the first woman to ever serve in a Presidential Cabinet. She was selected only 13 years after women obtained the right to vote in the United States. Over her career she had crucial roles in championing the Works Progress Administration, creating the Fair Labor Standards Act (which created the minimum wage), banning child labor and helping to enact the National Labor Relations Act, which protected the rights of workers to unionize. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment however, was the legislation she helped draft while she served as the chair of FDR's interagency Committee on Economic Security -- the Social Security Act. Indeed, her grandson has written,
"My grandmother considered [Social Security] her most significant accomplishment. She strove to provide 'the best possible life' to working men and women across the nation."
Since Perkins' time as Secretary of Labor, Social Security has become one of the most crucial earned benefits programs for seniors, people with disabilities and families of workers who have died, a foundational program that enhances the economic security and quality of life for millions of Americans. Despite its strengths and achievements, our Social Security system can still be improved and expanded.
Today, 14.8 percent of seniors live in poverty, according to the government's newest and most accurate poverty index, the Supplemental Poverty Measure. By this same measure, more than half of seniors -- 54.7 percent -- would be in poverty, but for Social Security. Indeed, Social Security provides about two out of three seniors with half or more of their incomes. For one out of three seniors, Social Security benefits are virtually their only source of income. Retired women disproportionately rely on earned Social Security benefits later in life as a result of lower lifetime wages, longer gaps in unemployment, outliving wage-earning spouses and other factors. Just as American women average less earnings and lower wages, older women live in poverty at far higher rates than men.
When a lifetime minimum-wage worker with a 40-year work history is attempting to live solely on a Social Security benefit of only $686/month, how can policy makers pursue options that would reduce these benefits further? Times are hard enough for retirees and harder still for retired women.
As mentioned above, many older women's lower Social Security benefits and higher rates of poverty result from lower earnings during their working years. The real value of the minimum wage has decreased consistently since 1968, and this has contributed greatly to ever increasing income inequality. Even when earning above minimum wage, women still experience a pay gap between themselves and their male peers/counterparts, which has prompted legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Act. This is hardly the economic climate that Frances Perkins imagined.
If Perkins could inherit the Great Depression and come out of it with programs that would help women for decades to come, there's no reason solutions can't be found today. Restoring the minimum wage to near its 1968 level and then indexing it to inflation, as The Fair Minimum Wage Act of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif) proposes, would greatly increase the quality of women's lives now, as well as years down the road when they decide to retire.
So would expanding Social Security. Frances Perkins saw her creation as just the start. In 1960, on the 25th anniversary of its enactment, she used the metaphor of the child, in urging the expansion of Social Security:
[A]s we... think about this precious child we want to see it grow. It has grown enormously in these years, it has improved, its administration has grown bigger and bigger as the imagination of those in charge have pointed out what could be done, but there is yet much that needs to be done and that I hope in God's good time will be done by bipartisan action as were the last amendments [creating, among other things, Social Security Disability Insurance].
Seven out of 10 Americans support increasing the minimum wage, and a full three out of four support expanding Social Security. For the women of today, and of the generations that will follow, it's time to act. Let's build on the legacy that Frances Perkins left for us, and leave even stronger economic security for our children and grandchildren.
Follow Barbara J. Easterling on Twitter: www.twitter.com/activeretirees