I attended the Women’s March in Washington DC over the weekend. It was exhilarating and gave half a million participants an inspiring feeling of “yes we can!” I am still on a high from the sense of power in numbers and community I felt on that day. One of the speakers, Kierra Johnson, the Executive Director of URGE, pointed out in her speech that “If someone else controls your body, it is they and not you that control your destiny.” Amen. I only wish that the women’s march could have articulated a parallel message: if you don’t control your money, you don’t control your destiny either.
So many great ideals were articulated on the march: Equal pay for equal work; universal affordable healthcare; reproductive rights; childcare reform, to name a few. But while many of the speeches decried our patriarchal system, none articulated that we need to take on a personal financial and tax structure that leaves women systematically poor in old age.
Consider the following statistics:
- Women 65 or older experience poverty rates almost twice that of men in the same age group.
- Close to half of women over age 62 receive Social Security retirement benefits through the earnings records of their spouses or ex-spouses as opposed to on their own earnings records. The subliminal message from Social Security is that a married woman must rely on her spouse’s earnings record for auxiliary retirement benefits, because motherhood and raising the next generation do not qualify as work.
- If a woman remarries, she loses her auxiliary benefits from a former spouse because it is assumed that the new spouse will take care of her financially.
- Men in aggregate have retirement account balances that are 50 percent larger than those of women (Vanguard study: 2015).
- A woman (or man) is restricted from contributing to a tax deductible retirement account if her spouse earns over a certain amount. But the higher earner’s retirement account is titled solely in his name, leaving the low earner financially dependent on her spouse in old age. If you don’t control your money, you don’t control your destiny.
So here are a few financial reforms we need to fight for:
- Revamp the IRS computer system and tax forms so that married couples are each classified as “co-taxpayers” instead of “taxpayer” and “spouse” respectively. This may sound like a semantic difference, but it sets up an unnecessary hierarchy between spouses. The husband is labeled “the taxpayer” in the vast majority of cases and the wife is termed “spouse” even though she pays taxes on her owned earned income. The IRS system is outdated and conjures up a 1950s image of spousal dependency.
- Restructure Social Security to be more progressive and with caregiver credits available for those who look after children and/or the elderly. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut introduced the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act in March of 2016. Move away from auxiliary Social Security benefits determined by marital status and a spouse’s earnings history.
- Redesign our retirement system so that it is not our current ad hoc do-it-yourself structure of 401Ks and 403b retirement plans that disproportionately benefit fulltime employees at a time when our workforce is demanding work-life balance and the flexibility of an Uber-economy.
The Women’s March in Washington DC and around the globe illustrated the strength women have when we band together. We are a force of power and dignity. But the fact is that of the approximate three million women that marched in cities across the United States on Saturday, most will end up poor in old age and this is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that women rely far more heavily than men on Social Security for retirement income even though we receive only about 75 cents from Social Security for every dollar a man does. We have shown that we know how to organize. We now need to demand policies that result in equal retirement benefits for equal work.