Originally created 10/24/98

Women talk of Social Security woes



WASHINGTON -- Bernice Meyer doesn't expect she'll have much money to live on beyond a check from Social Security when it comes time for her to retire.

As a single woman, the 49-year-old has worked throughout her adult life. But the community service jobs Meyer has held have been low paying with few retirement benefits. Her current one is as a home aide in Seattle, helping elderly and disabled people with daily activities.

"Most of my life, I've been in positions where I'm generally making money to make ends meet," said Meyer. "So, Social Security is important to me in terms of being my livelihood when I retire."

For a woman, supporting herself in old age can be a greater worry than for a man, simply because women live longer and often have earned less. Women are much more likely than men to have to rely on Social Security for the majority of their retirement income, and yet many get smaller benefit checks because they've spent fewer years in the workforce

These special obstacles have prompted women Democrats in Congress to ask President Clinton to speak up for women's interests. The nation is preparing to consider changes to keep Social Security from running short of cash as baby boomers retire.

A roundtable discussion between the president, Vice President Al Gore and a handful of women, originally scheduled for Friday, was postponed to Tuesday because Clinton was occupied with Middle East peace talks.

Unlike several other public forums the Clinton Administration has hosted on Social Security's future this year, the roundtable -- which now will be held just a week before congressional elections on Nov. 3 -- is not expected to include Republican lawmakers. It is to be beamed, via satellite, to audiences of women gathered in 10 U.S. cities.

"It's to remind all Americans about how important retirement security is for women and in particular about how important Social Security is," said Social Security Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel.

American women are still twice as likely as men to spend at least a decade or more outside the labor force, often caring for children or elderly family members. That may make it harder for them to qualify for or get full benefits from company retirement plans.

It can be harder for working women to save for retirement as well, as they tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs and on average make only around 75 cents for every dollar paid to men.

On Tuesday, Clinton plans to propose two new laws giving women greater access to income from private pension or 401(k) retirement savings plans, according to a White House aide who requested anonymity.

One administration proposal would allow women to count any time they take away from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act toward pension eligibility or vesting in a 401(k) savings plan. The act allows for up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member or for personal illness.

The other proposal would require private pension plans to offer married couples more options to reduce the payments they receive while both are alive. That would assure the longest surviving spouse -- most often the woman -- receives a larger income later.

Pensions now must offer payment plans providing 50 percent benefits to surviving spouses. Under the administration's proposal, plans providing 75 percent survivor benefits would also have to be offered.