THE BLOG
08/14/2013 09:43 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

Social Security Turns 78 Today! Will It Make It To 80?

Seventy-eight years ago today, on August 14 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill that created Social Security into law. And yet, some in Washington are still obsessed with undermining this essential foundation of retirement security in America.

They want to tear up legislation that has been passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president, cut protections that provide lifelines to millions of Americans, and wage an argument that everyone else considers settled.

Sound familiar? Really, it makes the 40 times the Republican Congress has voted to repeal Obamacare seem half-hearted!

What it is about lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty that Republican leaders and the fat-cat contributors who support them don't like?

As Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman wrote,

Conservatives hate Social Security for ideological reasons: its success undermines their claim that government is always the problem, never the solution. But they receive crucial support from Washington insiders, for whom a declared willingness to cut Social Security has long served as a badge of fiscal seriousness, never mind the arithmetic.

But let's look at the numbers that really matter.

While Social Security is a program that is vitally important to all Americans, it is especially critical to the financial security of women. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

First, women live longer than men, and typically retire with less savings than men. On average, women are paid less than men, either due to outright wage discrimination or because women are clustered into low-paying fields. Over a lifetime, this disparity really adds up. Additionally, women are less likely than men to work for employers that provide pensions, and we often take time out of the paid workforce to care for children or other family members. Women of color retire at an even greater economic disadvantage than white women.

But as is the case in so many instances, the most vulnerable populations in our society are the first to be called to the chopping block. These low-wage workers, women, people of color and working families don't have high-priced lobbyists or Wall Street tycoons in their corner.

What they do have is us -- and time after time, when we work together, we are able to win!

For example, when the the notorious Simpson-Bowles Commission launched an attack on Social Security that would cut benefits and raise the retirement age, women fought back. Simpson-Bowles would have pushed millions of women into poverty and out of the middle class by moving Social Security toward being a welfare program, rather than the guaranteed income security program it was designed to be.

With our leadership, we were able to wage an effective defense of our rights to income security. But now, on this anniversary of the birth of Social Security, it's time to move away from playing defense and go on the offense.

We need to not just defend Social Security, but expand it.

Millions of American women are depending on us to succeed.

Social Security is even more important to women because we live longer than men and typically retire with less savings than men. On average, women are paid less than men, either due to outright wage discrimination or because women are clustered into low-paying fields. Over a lifetime, this disparity really adds up.

Additionally, women are less likely than men to work for employers that provide pensions, and we often take time out of the paid workforce to care for children or other family members. And women of color retire at an even greater economic disadvantage than white women.

What's more, more than 2/3 of workers who earn the minimum wage are women -- and many of them are members of what I call the "three shift brigade."

These women have a minimum wage job at Wal-Mart, another one at a local diner, and then they come home to take up their vital -- and unpaid -- responsibilities as caregivers to children, elderly or disabled parents and other family members. That adds up to three shifts of difficult, often backbreaking work. Franklin Delano Roosevelt couldn't have predicted this sector of the economy, but in 2013, it's a reality that cannot be ignored.

Social Security is supposed to provide income insurance based on a workers' lifetime of employment. But one of the main reasons that women have fewer assets and less income in retirement than do men is that they often interrupt their participation in the labor force to provide services to family members. These temporary interruptions can lead to a huge reduction in the amount of a woman's Social Security benefit.

Congresswomen Gwen Moore (D-WI) has proposed a Social Security Enhancement and Protection Act that will improve Social Security coverage for women, people of color, and low-income Americans and improve revenue for the program. According to Rep. Moore:

There is broad agreement that we need to take steps to improve the fiscal outlook for Social Security. However, in addition to extending the solvency of the system, we must improve it so it works better for vulnerable populations, including women, people of color, and low-income people. My legislation would enhance benefits and help us ensure that Social Security does what it was intended to do -- ensure that all Americans are not at risk of living in poverty.

This month, while members of Congress are back home in their districts -- where, as this article in the New York Times explains, many of them are assiduously avoiding town hall meetings with their constituents -- we need to demand laws such as Gwen Moore's that strengthen Social Security for women, people of color and low-income workers.

Another essential remedy is to provide Social Security credits for caregivers. We need to credit unpaid family caregivers when they take leave to care for family members. According to the Center for American Progress,

Workers who leave the labor force or significantly reduce their hours in the workforce to provide family care should be allowed to earn credits toward Social Security retirement benefits so that they accumulate Social Security savings for their retirement. But this remedy must be coupled with paid family leave in order to provide low-wage workers with the opportunity to stay connected to the labor force in the first place.

In this way, those providing care will earn immediate and long-term income based on the everyday realities of today's workplace, enabling these workers and their families to better thrive and prosper in our economy today.

We've had to fight every step of the way to protect our core values of justice, fairness, economic security and equal rights. In a few weeks, I'll be one of the featured speakers at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington where I will commemorate not only Dr. Martin Luther King's historic "I Have A Dream" speech, but also celebrate all that has been achieved in the 50 years since that original march -- and recognize all that remains to be done.

Let's start by expanding Social Security now, to ensure that future generations of retirees can depend on the economic security they've worked so hard and so selflessly to earn.