November 16, 2004
Updating Social Security for the modern woman
Before the creation of the Social Security system in 1935, an estimated half of elderly Americans lived in poverty. In its nearly 80 years of existence, the program has transformed American society, significantly reducing poverty among the elderly and providing income security to millions. Originally designed for retired workers, Social Security was later extended to families through spousal, survivor and dependent benefits, making it the nation's largest family policy.
While Americans are clearly much better off today as a result of Social Security, LBJ School Professor Pam Herd is concerned about growing gaps in poverty between men and women, but also among women. Women are twice as likely to be poor as men. But black women are three times as likely to be poor compared to white women. According to Herd, the Social Security system’s antiquated nuclear family model is increasingly problematic.
“The system is modeled on a two-parent, one-earner family that no longer represents the norm, especially among poor and black women,” said Herd.
A sociologist with expertise on the effects of social policies on women, minorities and the elderly, Herd has conducted extensive research on the demographic trends behind the disparity in Social Security benefits.
"One of the biggest changes the family has undergone over the last 50 years is what social scientists call the retreat from marriage," said Herd. "Simply put, more people are divorcing, never marrying and having children outside of marriage."
Tied to the traditional breadwinner family structure, spousal benefits only reward women who marry. Due to the retreat from marriage, growing numbers of women are not qualifying for spousal benefits even though, like their mothers, they have lower earnings than men.
"Despite increasing participation, women continue to have lower labor force participation rates and earnings than men," she said. "This is mainly due to their disproportionate responsibility for raising children and caring for the elderly."
As a result of the pay gap and fewer years in the labor force, women’s—and in particular mothers’--lower net earnings translate into smaller Social Security benefits during retirement. These trends are even more pronounced among black women and poor women with low educational attainment. And given that fewer of these women are marrying, many do not have access to spousal benefits, which buffer the Social Security benefits of married women with low earnings.
According to Herd, eliminating spousal benefits and introducing care credits would be a cost effective way to improve the economic well being of the most economically vulnerable older women. Such a system would remove marriage from the equation and reward women directly for their unpaid care work. Instead of subsidizing women’s benefits because they get married, care credits would subsidize women’s benefits because they raised children.
"Overall, it appears that care credits would be a more progressive way to distribute benefits,” she said.
While Herd contends that the case for reforming family benefits is clear step in improving Social Security benefits for women, she stresses that race and class differences must be taken into account.
Much of her research and writing examine issues related to social equity and stratification and the effectiveness of social policies in reducing poverty. She is writing a book with Madonna Harrington Meyer titled Retrenching Welfare, Entrenching Equality: Health and Income Support Policies for Older Americans, which will be published as part of the American Sociological Association's Rose Series on Public Policy in January 2005.
Herd, who received a Ph.D. in sociology from Syracuse University, joined the LBJ School faculty this fall. She is currently teaching a seminar called “Family Policy,” which examines the effects of federal and state policies on poverty, children, marriage, and women's labor force participation. This spring, she will teach a seminar titled “Race and Social Policy” that will cover a host of social policy areas, including housing, income security, education and health policies.
A 2002-04 grant recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research Program, Herd, received the Syracuse University Outstanding Dissertation Prize in 2002 for her dissertation, "Crediting Care, Citizenship or Marriage: Gender, Race, Class and Social Security Reform." Other awards include a National Academy of Social Insurance Dissertation award, a Center for Retirement Research/Social Security Administration Fellowship in 2001, the National Academy of Social Insurance Internship in 2000, and the AARP/Andrus Foundation Scholarship in 1999.
She has coauthored numerous articles and chapters that have appeared in such publications as Social Force, Gender and Society, The Gerontologist, Journal of Aging and Social Policy, and the Blackwell Companion to Sociology.
by Megan Scarborough
© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
16 November 2004
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