The Pay Gap Haunts Women Into Old Age

Women's economic inequality only gets worse as they age. Lawmakers and advocates are trying to mobilize women voters around fixing that.

Women's economic inequality only gets worse as they age. Lawmakers and advocates are trying to mobilize women voters around fixing that. Shutterstock

Right now, and possibly for the rest of her life, Jeannie Brown’s income depends on how long her severely disabled granddaughter lives.

Brown, who is 50, has been caring for her granddaughter since she fought to get her out of the foster care system in 2008. The 6-year-old has a host of ailments, including catastrophic epilepsy and cerebral palsy. She’s already lived longer than doctors had expected.

After Brown’s mother had a stroke and could no longer help care for the girl, Brown quit her $30,000-a-year job in 2010 to be a full-time caregiver. She survives only on a $770 monthly stipend she gets from the State of Montana for having adopted her granddaughter, along with food stamps and assistance for her home heating and property tax bills.

She’ll lose that stipend if her granddaughter dies, and she’s not sure where she’d turn if she’s unable to get work again after that.

“Let’s say I’m able to keep her around another ten years,” Brown told Rewire. “I’ll be 60 years old. Nobody is going to want to hire me.”

She worries intensely about her ability to afford retirement. She knows her Social Security benefits will shrink with every year she isn’t working. When she quit her job, she had only worked 32 years (often part-time so she could care for her own children), and Social Security benefits are calculated based on a person’s highest-earning 35 years. She’s also divorced, and was married for less than the ten years it would take to qualify for spousal survivor benefits.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat, but it has been a huge sacrifice,” Brown said of taking in her granddaughter.

American women face a huge retirement savings gap compared to men, and taking time off work to care for an elderly family member or a young child, as Brown did, is one reason for that.

Women make up about two-thirds of unpaid family caregivers, and they are more likely to take lower paying jobs, work part-time, or not work at all as a result. That will earn them lower Social Security benefits since those benefits are tied to how much a person earns. 

That’s in addition to the cumulative effects of a lifetime’s worth of lower pay. Women working full-time and year-round currently earn 78 cents for every dollar a man earns—but the gap was wider in earlier generations, meaning that women preparing to retire today were able to save even less and will earn even less in benefits.

The pension gap is even bigger than the wage gap, Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Poilcy Research, noted at a Congressional briefing Tuesday on economic security for older women. Women, and especially women of color, are less likely to have a pension from a private employer.

And even if they do, it will be smaller on average than what men get.

Combine all of this with the fact that the wage gap only gets worse as women age (60 cents on the dollar for women over 65), and that women live longer on average and thus need to stretch their retirement dollars further, and you get something of a perfect storm against women’s ability to retire without being impoverished.

The social pressures on women to take time off work to be caregivers and the social stigma that shuts them out of better job opportunities don’t just hurt a woman’s standard of living while she is working; they follow her until the end of her days.

Statistics like these are spurring advocates and legislators to push for increasing Social Security and Medicare benefits, as well as modernizing them so that women aren’t as dependent on marriage for their retirement security.

A new initiative called Eleanor’s Hope, named after Eleanor Roosevelt and backed by the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, aims to mobilize and educate women voters and activists of all ages around the issue of income inequality for women.

It’s a project of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which is appealing to a new demographic by making the connection between retirement security and the gender wage gap.

“We’re an organization that has reached out to senior women over the years,” Pamela Tainter Causey, the committee’s director of communications, said in an interview with Rewire. “This moves us in a broader direction where we’re reaching out to younger women as well, mobilizing them, and informing them of what’s down the pike if we don’t get changes made soon.”

The initiative is taking advantage of a renewed focus on women’s issues in the upcoming election to spread the word. Organizers are registering voters and getting people to sign a pledge to vote in the midterm elections for candidates who will “champion women’s equity issues if elected to Congress.”

Eleanor’s Hope kicks off Wednesday in New Hampshire with that state’s all-female Congressional delegation.

The initiative is highlighting several bills in Congress that could improve the income disparity between men and women in retirement, as well as strengthen Social Security for all Americans. They include increasing survivor benefits for widows, increasing the basic benefit, and making LGBT couples fully eligible for benefits.

One bill, Rep. Nita Lowey’s (D-NY) Social Security Caregiver Credit Act, would specifically help people like Jeannie Brown who take time off work to care for family members.

Brown could get credit towards her Social Security benefits for up to five years of caregiving if the bill were implemented. That would mean she could get her 32 years of work up to 35 or more, and she could claim an income of $22,000 for those five years of care work.

Bills like Lowey’s, Brown said, could “literally be the difference for me between poverty and extreme poverty.”