How social security disappoints parents

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Myour father didn’t believe my mother when she announced that she was leaving him. Desperate, after years of begging him to accept treatment for a worsening mental illness, she threatened to move out if he didn’t follow her doctor’s recommendations. “Where will you go?” He asked.

A former stay-at-home mom of five grown children, all starting their careers across the country, my mom had no money and no job. Given her scarce work history, it seemed unlikely that she could find a position that would allow her to support herself. Even if it was, at 58, she was quickly approaching the end of her working years. And unlike my father, she would have little social security to count on in retirement.

She left anyway, plummeting into a life of almost certain poverty.

The American pension system is stacked against mothers. Women are more likely than men to reduce their working hours or leave the workforce to raise children and, therefore, are more likely to experience poverty in old age. America’s main safety net for the elderly – Social Security – rewards long careers and high wages, while ensuring that parents who focus on child rearing work receive the smallest payments. I knew it, and as I listened to my mom recount my dad’s callous question, I found myself wondering the same thing: where would have she goes?

Myour mom was in second grade of medical residency in New York when she became pregnant with her first child. It was 1986, and the pediatric program she was interned for showed no mercy for her situation. She worked 80-hour weeks consisting of night shifts until the day of delivery. I once asked her if she had maternity leave, and she laughed: she was given two unpaid weeks to recuperate and go back to her regular schedule.

She did not return. And although she planned to resume her training, life got in the way. My father’s income as a paralegal was not enough to cover the expenses of their growing family in Manhattan, so he looked for work elsewhere. When he found it, my parents moved to a rural part of Virginia, far from any teaching hospital. They ended up having five children in seven years, and my mother stayed home raising us for most of the next 18 years.

My mom’s time away from the job market means she will be retiring with little of her own resources, which is not uncommon. Even when mothers do not leave the workforce completely, they tend to earn less than their male counterparts and thus accumulate less savings over the course of their lives. This is not a problem for married women who can rely on their spouse’s savings. But single mothers don’t have such support. And while divorced mothers are technically entitled to half of the assets accrued during marriage, it doesn’t always happen that way. Until a divorce is finalized, these pension assets belong to the person who earned them, and divorce is a long and expensive process. Women with limited knowledge of or access to their spouse’s assets may find it difficult to prove that these assets exist or to secure their share before they are spent.

This is what happened to my mother. As my father’s health worsened, he stopped working regularly and regularly dipped into his retirement savings to keep a roof over his head, leaving little for the divorce court to distribute. At that time, neither of my parents were in a good position for retirement (although my father, unlike my mother, could count on the help of wealthy parents). But America’s social safety net did a much better job of catching my dad than my mom, because Social Security directly ties benefits to income.

When you retire, the amount you receive from Social Security each month is a percentage of your average income over your top 35 earning years. Those with a poor employment history may qualify for a spouse’s benefit of up to half of what their current or former spouse receives each month. By design, this system penalizes anyone who, at any time in their life, works part-time; chooses a lower paying, family-friendly job; or stay at home to take care of their children. Because women are more likely to do all of these things, they inevitably receive lower earnings than men. The average retirement benefit for men is about $ 1,600 per month, or about $ 300 more than the average woman receives. My mother’s spousal benefit will be about $ 650 per month if she waits until she is 70 to claim it, compared to $ 1,300 for my father. The fact that women retire with fewer resources and have the right to fewer retirement benefits puts single, widowed and divorced mothers at a particularly high risk of poverty in old age.

For much of human history, having children was the surest route to a comfortable retirement, which is one of the reasons why, until fairly recently, people had so many. The parents had five or six children in the hope that a few would survive long enough to care for them in their old age. Children were strongly encouraged to honor this bargain in order to inherit property from their parents. Economic development has disrupted this arrangement by giving young adults more opportunities; countries have started publicly funding pensions and healthcare for the elderly to alleviate the resulting poverty among the elderly.

This socialized elderly care system is better in some ways, as it ensures that the elderly are not left destitute even though they do not have children willing and able to care for them. But that hasn’t made any of us less dependent on children in old age. Adult children no longer pay for their parents’ housing or medical care out of their own pockets, they instead pay with their tax dollars. This is why it is so strange that Social Security is structured this way. The program rewards hard work and ignores parenting, but needs both to work. If we all worked and no one had children, our senior care system would collapse as we got older, and not just Social Security. Medicare, the wider economy and financial markets also depend on people with babies.

I am certainly not the first to complain about the way Social Security is structured. In 1993, feminist economist Shirley Burggraf wrote that we should “further socialize the costs” of parenthood or “further privatize the benefits,” by passing the US payroll taxes that fund social security directly to the parents who raised them. If I had what I wanted, we would do a version of the two: publicly fund children’s education costs and give social security credits to caregivers as well as workers, as many European countries do. Or we could just give everyone the same retirement benefit, no matter how much they worked or how many children they had.

AI expected, my mother struggled to find a stable job. She looked for low-level medical jobs, only to find that her decades-old medical degree left her “overqualified but under-certified” to do them.

She worked a bit as a teacher in a small private Montessori school. When this post was abolished, she was hired as a dispatcher at a local police station on the condition that she survived a six-month probationary period. The job was tough: 12-hour night shifts, reminiscent of her days as a New York resident. She found it much harder to keep up with them at 62 and was fired after three months for mis-coding an emergency into the computer system on her third consecutive night shift.

Then the coronavirus hit, and as businesses in Virginia froze their hiring processes or shut down altogether, its leads completely dried up. In June 2020, she accepted a teaching position at another underfunded Montessori school in Cleveland. I think, secretly, she was grateful for the pandemic. Her COVID relief checks, and mine, were the only reason she could afford to move to Ohio. But that position didn’t work either, and she once again uprooted her life to seek gainful employment that becomes increasingly elusive as she ages.

Then, in June of this year, my father died suddenly of a heart attack and we learned that my mother was entitled to receive her Social Security benefits because my parents had been married for so long. My father was a troubled man, and his refusal to accept treatment strained my relationship with him as well as his marriage. But I loved her like any girl, and it makes me angry that I feel relieved of her untimely death on behalf of my mother.

Throughout her struggles, my mother received little sympathy from family, friends, and strangers. After all, if she didn’t want to depend on my father in her old age, she shouldn’t have had children until her career was better established, and certainly shouldn’t have had so many. With the birth rate in the United States reaching a new all-time low last year, many women of my generation seem to have chosen not to repeat my mother’s mistakes. I certainly won’t.


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