Women Become Losers Under Coniiditons of Social Security Rules : Retirement: Married working women usually earn no more in benefits than if they had never worked a day.


The Ozzie and Harriet version of the American family is nearly extinct, but the Social Security system designed around it is much the same. As a result, women are the losers.

Married working women usually earn no more Social Security retirement than if they had never worked a day. Most divorced women get only half the benefits earned by their former husbands.

Women who become widowed in their 50s face up to 10 years without any death benefit checks.

These inequities have been acknowledged since the mid-1970s, but reforms went nowhere because the system went through a financial crisis. Tax increases passed in the early 1980s have prompted renewed calls for reform.

Two House subcommittees are considering legislation. A task force appointed by Social Security Commissioner Gwendolyn King is working on its own bill.

"I think we have a responsibility to at least look at whether we're serving the needs of families in this country in the 21st Century," King said in an interview at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore.

The Older Women's League, an advocacy group, explains the problem in dollars.

The average monthly Social Security retirement benefit for women in 1989 was roughly three-quarters of that paid to men--$488, compared to $639, according to the league.

Compounding the problem, by 2030, only one in three women over 65 will be married, compared to 40% today.

"More and more women will be living in poverty," said Joan Kurianski, director of the Older Women's League.

Two factors put working women at a disadvantage. They usually earn less than men and they often stop working to care for children or elderly relatives.

The system gives these women a difficult choice.

They can base their Social Security check on their own earnings or they can get a check equal to half their husband's benefits. Because their earned benefit is usually lower than the 50% spousal benefit, the years they worked and paid taxes go for naught.

Divorced women, unless they have earned high incomes themselves, get only the 50% spousal benefit--and then only if they have been married 10 years.

Reform advocates also bemoan what they call the widow's gap--a quirk in the system that can put widows in their 50s in poverty.

While they are too old to begin most careers, Social Security won't pay death benefits until age 60 because they don't have young children. Faced with relatively paltry retirement checks, women must make do in other ways.

Lucille Leffall, 65, is a retired beautician in Baltimore who is twice divorced and now gets $300 per month Social Security. She works part-time at a senior citizens center and depends on her daughter and son-in-law for help.

Without that, Leffall said: "I would get married again, I guess--if I could find the right person who would go along with my way of thinking."

Mary Gray, 75, also of Baltimore, worked 14 years in a doughnut shop and became widowed at 57. Her Social Security check now totals $437. She lives in a rent-subsidized apartment, but still has to juggle to meet expenses.

"I was raised during the Depression and you realized then that sometimes you just didn't get what you wanted," she said.

One proposal to equalize benefits between men and women is called earnings sharing. The total lifetime wages of a husband and wife are combined, then divided to compute each person's retirement check.

"The principle is, marriage is an economic partnership and even if I'm not in the paid labor force, I'm contributing to the marriage," said Laurel Beeden, a researcher for the American Assn. of Retired Persons.

But earnings sharing cuts benefits to some people, such as divorced men, so it's never gotten far in Congress. Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) has tried to solve these inequities with earnings sharing legislation that prohibits anyone's benefits from dropping.

Although this would drastically increase the cost, Oakar says the Social Security Trust Fund can afford it.

"If you did the whole bill in one fell swoop it would cost in the neighborhood of $30 billion (a year), but remember, as we speak we have about $90 billion in the trust fund, and by the year 2000, they say it will be up to about $1 trillion."

A less ambitious proposal by Rep. Thomas Tauke (R-Iowa) would:

* Allow women to take up to 10 years out of the work force to care for children or relatives with no loss in retirement benefits.

* Allow widows who are ineligible to receive benefits until age 60 to get them at 55.

* Allow divorcing women to negotiate in court for part of their husband's Social Security benefits.

King, however, doubts that the system can afford either plan.

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