The Bills

Attacks on Social Security Are Attacks on Women

And they’re becoming a mainstay of the GOP primary.

elderly woman social security.
Women are more dependent on Social Security for their economic well-being than men are.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Shutterstock

Earlier this week, Paul Krugman asked an important question in his New York Times column: Why are almost all the Republican candidates for president campaigning on a platform that calls for cuts in Social Security, even though polls routinely show most voters support increasing payments?

Krugman flagged the financial priorities of the wealthiest Americans as the culprit, arguing that surveys show they demonstrate the least support for Social Security. If the people funding the candidates don’t like something, in other words, neither will the candidates. As true as this analysis is, it misses a vital piece of the puzzle—the war on women.

In national politics, the war on women isn’t always about denying women the right to choose to end a pregnancy or to have health insurance pay for contraception. It’s also about denying women their financial dignity.

So is Social Security another front in the politicians’ affronts to the lives of American women? “Absolutely,” says Nancy Altman, co-founder of the advocacy organization Social Security Works and co-author of a book with the same name. “Attacks on the program are attacks on everyone, but they are especially attacks on women.”

Let me explain.

Social Security is rightly viewed as a program that provides economic security for all Americans in their old age. But who is most likely to benefit from it? From the time an American can first claim eligibility at age 62, the majority of those receiving a Social Security check in retirement are female—56 percent to start off, to be specific. But because women outlive men, that discrepancy grows only larger with time. By age 85, about two-thirds of the recipients are women.

Moreover, women—who earn less than men and take more pauses from the workforce (due in part to their assumption of caretaking duties for everyone from children to elderly relatives)—are more dependent on Social Security for their economic well-being in their final years than their male peers are. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 30 percent of women 65 or older rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income. Men? Only 23 percent are so reliant. And women’s checks are smaller, too. The average retired female worker receives more than $300 less a month from Social Security than a male one.

Viewed all together, this leaves women more likely to suffer from any cutbacks in Social Security, even the most innocent-sounding ones. Take a look at calls to change the formula to determine annual cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security payments, a position supported by, for example, Ted Cruz.

The argument is that the current formula overestimates the impact of inflation on the finances of the elderly. Not by a large amount, mind you. Just a tiny bit, maybe something like 0.25 or 0.3 percent annually, as revealed by competing Department of Labor measures for computing how inflation is experienced by consumers.

When the National Women’s Law Center ran the numbers on the proposed adjustment in 2011, it determined that a woman would receive $56 less than she otherwise would find in her monthly Social Security stipend by the time she’s 80. If she lives to 95? That number all but doubles to $101 a month.

That may sound piddly, but it comes to one to two weeks’ worth of meals for an elderly woman. According to the USDA, the average amount of money a woman over the age of 71 spends on groceries costing a “moderate” amount is $57.70.

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that this whole idea that Social Security is going bankrupt, as both Republicans and self-proclaimed centrist organizations like the Third Way like to claim, is a myth. Estimates are that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the projected funding shortfall could be eliminated by raising something called the payroll tax cap, which is the amount of earnings taxed for Social Security. This year, that’s $118,500. It’s an amount earned by less than 10 percent of all workers.

If you think would-be Social Security cutters acknowledge any of this—well, I’ve got a cow with 310 million udders to sell you.

Wondering what that is?

A few years back former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican who was then co-chairing President Obama’s deficit-cutting commission, began to reference a nonexistent lobbying organization called the Pink Panthers, whom he said were fighting against reasonable adjustments in Social Security. When the president of an advocacy organization called the Older Women’s League accused Simpson of “sexism” in the Huffington Post, he sent off a nastygram email, referring to Social Security as “a milk cow with 310 million tits.”*

This is how the war on women works. Sometimes it is revealed by an almost Freudian slip, like Simpson’s unfortunate analogy, or Donald Trump’s comment that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly has “blood coming out of her wherever.” (Trump, ironically, is one of the few Republican candidates for president to not call for Social Security cuts.) But it’s just as likely to be found in the omissions, in the things not said, in the concerns not taken seriously.

Would-be Social Security cutters often have a way of putting proposed changes in dry terms, designed to disguise what’s going on. They discuss fiscal responsibility, claiming they are saving the system from bankruptcy. Or like Marco Rubio, they talk about personal responsibility. In a 2011 speech, Rubio claimed that prior to the introduction of Social Security and other programs like Medicare, “you saved for your retirement and your future because you had to,” but that they “weakened us as people.”

“The attitude is that Social Security is a handout. And women don’t deserve the handout. They want all these uppity rights,” says Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women.

And that idea—that modern women are somehow uppity—is something that’s been riven through the Republican presidential contest, from Jeb Bush’s comments that seemed to say that federal government spending on women’s health care issues was excessive (he later claimed he was simply referring to the government spending on Planned Parenthood), to the assumption that the candidates know better than women when it comes to matters of birth control and abortion, to, yes, Donald Trump’s attacks on Kelly.

True, in the past, Democrats have also been known to support at least some cuts to Social Security. It was President Barack Obama, after all, who appointed Simpson to that bipartisan commission, which was, among other things, meant to offer ways to finance Social Security into the future. It was Obama who, in 2012, told Mitt Romney, “I suspect that on Social Security we’ve got a somewhat similar position.” During the campaign, Obama also said he planned to “tweak” the program. He was likely referring to the formula for the cost-of-living adjustment.

But thanks no doubt to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s strong championing of increased Social Security benefits, the Democratic candidates for president in 2016 are taking a different tack. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley are on board with a full-on increase in benefits. Hillary Clinton hasn’t addressed the matter publicly, but in a questionnaire she filled out for the AFL-CIO earlier this year that was recently obtained by Reuters, she wrote, “We need to improve how Social Security works for women.”

So, a plea: The next time you hear someone proclaim Social Security needs to be saved from itself, tell them how it protects elderly women—like his mother and grandmother. Then ask him if he knows what the payroll tax cap is. Chances are he will say no. Explain it. Then see what he says.

Correction, Aug. 21, 2015: This article originally misidentified the Older Women’s League as the Older Woman’s League. (Return.)