For women, the debate over privatizing Social Security is especially important. "[Social Security's] face is a female face," says Dr. Laurie Young, executive director of Older Women's League. On Mother's Day, her organization issued a report charging that privatization is "a false promise."
Because women live longer on average than men, they usually receive Social Security benefits for a longer period. Further, inflation adjustments of these payments become especially valuable to women.
Because women spend an average 12 years of their lives taking care of children or elderly relatives, they often don't rise as far up the professional or business ladder as men do. So they earn less than men on average.
This means they benefit more from the current formula of Social Security, since lower-income people receive proportionately more benefits than higher-income people.
Under a privatized system, lower incomes would handicap women. What they don't earn, they can't save in an individual retirement account.
With the present system, women may be able to receive benefits according to the higher income of their husbands. The shift from regular pension plans (defined-benefit plans) to 401(k) plans (defined-contribution plans) by many firms has also hurt women, because women are more likely to be excluded from 401(k)s. They are more likely not to work enough hours per week, or enough years to qualify. Or the plans may cover, say, only male-dominated positions, such as engineers.
"It is astonishing how many people get excluded from these plans," says Ross Eisenbrey, policy director of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
Only 40 percent of women were covered by private pensions in 1999, compared with 47 percent of men. So Social Security is especially vital to females. Perhaps that's why the volatility of the stock market scares many women.
"A woman's retirement security should not depend on the year she is born, the year she starts working, or the year she retires," notes the League's report.