Commentary

Women, the White House and Social Security

By Darcy Ann Olsen
November 5, 1998

At last week’s White House conference on women and retirement, President Clinton delivered two messages: women depend disproportionately on Social Security at retirement, and Social Security faces a financing shortfall that makes some kind of investment-based reform worth consideration. People who focus only on the first message will be doing a disservice to women.

Everyone agrees that Social Security is important to women. They are disproportionately dependent on Social Security in retirement; twice as many women as men retire in poverty, and women receive only 75 cents in Social Security benefits to men’s $1.

To make matters worse, as the president noted, Social Security will be able to pay just 72 percent of promised benefits in the future. That means the average woman’s monthly benefit will drop from $621 to $447. Obviously, such benefit cuts would be a disaster.

Increasing payroll taxes to balance Social Security’s checkbook has little appeal, for very good reason. The payroll tax would have to be hiked so high that workers would pay nearly $1 of every $5 earned just to sustain the program. Such tax increases would be devastating to women, whose lower wages already make it difficult to live from paycheck to paycheck, let alone set aside money for retirement.


The wonder of privatization is that it goes beyond providing a safety net — it gives every worker, rich or poor, male or female, the freedom to save and achieve real financial independence.


Even if Congress could get a few more years out of the current program by cutting benefits or increasing taxes, the benefits for women would still be inadequate. Social Security benefits are so paltry that roughly 15 percent of America’s elderly women retire poor. And poverty rates are even higher among retired minority women: 29 percent of black women and 28 percent of Hispanic women retire in poverty.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Right now, every worker pays a 12.4 percent payroll, or FICA, tax that is earmarked for Social Security. Instead, Congress and the administration should let women (and men) redirect their payroll taxes into real retirement investment accounts, similar to IRAs or 401(k) plans. According to researchers at Harvard University, those individual accounts would make virtually all women better off in retirement.

Take, for example, a low-wage single woman making $12,000 a year who pays $1,488 per year in Social Security tax. When she retires, Social Security promises her $683 per month. If she were allowed instead to put her money in a savings program that invested in a mixed portfolio of bonds and stocks earning a 6.2 percent return, she would retire with $936 per month. Even if she invested very conservatively, say only in bonds earning just a 4 percent return, she would accrue a nest egg worth significantly more than what Social Security promises but may not deliver.

There is nothing mysterious about personal accounts outperforming Social Security. The truth is that it isn’t hard to bring home more than Social Security. Workers retiring today get a measly 2 percent return from Social Security on the money they’ve paid in. And because of demographic trends, younger workers will fare even worse — they can expect to get less at retirement than they paid in.

On the other hand, the average annual real return on U.S. stocks from 1926 through 1996 was 7.56 percent. Even low-risk investments, such as government bonds, typically yield a 3 or 4 percent return. Either way, it’s easy to come out ahead of Social Security.

Skeptics say such a system might work fine for experienced investors but not for women who generally are less experienced investors than men. But American women have a strong investment track record. In fact, 60 percent of women consider themselves knowledgeable investors. And according to several studies reported in the Wall Street Journal, women are better at managing their retirement accounts than are men.

In any case, private accounts don’t require us to be experienced investors. The history of 401(k) plans and IRAs suggests that we can receive excellent guidance from experienced account managers. And a system of personal accounts can be structured to keep out scam artists and restrict investment strategies that are too risky.

Finally, all serious proposals for privatization include a safety net feature that would ensure that everyone’s retirement income is at least at or above the poverty line. The wonder of privatization is that it goes beyond providing a safety net — it gives every worker, rich or poor, male or female, the freedom to save and achieve real financial independence.

Critics have suggested that investment-based reform is a Wall Street scheme to make the rich richer. But it isn’t the wealthy who count on Social Security to put food on the table. And it isn’t the wealthy who desperately need a retirement income they can count on. Privatization is simply pro-worker — it gives every one of us, particularly women who need it most, the freedom to save, to accumulate real wealth and to retire with real financial independence. Those who close their minds to the idea of investment-based accounts will do a disservice to those who most need this opportunity.

Darcy Olsen is an entitlements policy analyst at the Cato Institute.