Senior Women in Poverty

Congress is just beginning to look for ways to help older women inadequately covered by Social Security and pension programs

MARY SOUZA, a great-grandmother in her mid-70s, never expected to spend her retirement years in poverty.

For decades she combined her care-giving roles as wife and mother with part-time work as a dressmaker and then full-time work as a school employee. But she never qualified for Social Security on her own record and was not covered by her late husband's pension. As a consequence, she now lives on just over $500 a month in Social Security payments based on her husband's work record.

"There is no recognition for all the hard work women do, and it really hits home when you retire and see how low your compensation is, financially," says Mrs. Souza, a resident of Foxboro, Mass., who has been widowed for 20 years. With an annual income of less than $6,300, she typifies many of the 4 million older American women who are poor. Nearly three-quarters of the elderly poor are women. Half the elderly women living alone have incomes below $9,500 a year.

Souza is one of four women who testified here in mid-May at a field hearing on older women and poverty. Sponsored by the Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment of the United States House Select Committee on Aging, the hearing marked the beginning of federal attempts to correct inadequacies and inequities in Social Security and the private pension system. A blue-ribbon congressional study group will identify solutions, and in September a symposium will spell out priorities and offer suggestions for policy changes.

Mary Flannelly of Brookline, another testifier, spent a working lifetime as a factory worker, public-school matron, government administrator, and clerk. Now she receives a monthly retirement income of $654 from a small pension and Social Security. But she worries that health problems might force her to give up a part-time job paying $354 a month, leaving her unable to meet medical bills.

"I never realized the consequences of working in low-paying jobs that do not offer both Social Security and a pension," says Mrs. Flannelly, who was widowed when her son was young and found herself alone again when she was divorced from her second husband after a 17-year marriage. "No one discussed it then. It was just assumed that your husband would take care of you."

That assumption proves incorrect for many women. As Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the hearing, told the testifiers, "You did everything you were supposed to do, but the payoff has been atrocious."

Nor is the payoff likely to get much better, retirement experts warn. Despite media images that portray the new working woman as upwardly mobile, nearly 60 percent of women remain clustered in three low-paying, traditionally female occupations: sales, service, and clerical. Many women work part time because of family obligations, thus losing benefits and pension vesting. In addition, employment specialists note that women over the age of 40 often experience age discrimination, which limits their job opti ons and contributes to later impoverishment. For black women, who make up the most impoverished group, the challenges are even greater.

"The adequacy of a woman's retirement income depends on her marital status and the color of her skin," explains Regina O'Grady-LeShane, an assistant professor at Boston College.

But mysteries remain. In 1960, a woman's basic Social Security benefit was 75 percent of the average benefit received by a man, according to Dr. O'Grady-LeShane.

By 1990, a woman's average benefit had dropped to 59 percent of a man's average benefit.

Finding explanations for this huge drop, she says, will be "the women's issue of the 1990s and beyond."

Paula Rayman, an associate professor of sociology at Wellesley College, emphasizes the need for a national health care policy that will help everybody.

She also calls for part-time work that is linked to benefits, life-long education and training programs, and enforcement of age-discrimination laws.

"We need to educate employers about age discrimination and the positive benefits of older women," Dr. Rayman says.

Another solution, policy analysts say, is pension portability, which allows workers to transfer pension benefits from one job to another.

More than half of retirement-age men receive pension incomes, while only about one-quarter of women do.

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