Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health: Phase Two

Logo for the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health

Logo for the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health

On June 3, I gave an update on the second roll-out of bills associated with the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health. At the time, I did not have the bill numbers associated with each of these new bills nor did I have the information on where they were sent to. Now I do. Here’s that information.

Phase Two

Curbing Political Interference in Providers’ Medical Decisions:

H.B. 2303 will soon be introduced by Rep. Dan Frankel (D—Allegheny) to protect the doctor-patient relationship from directives to practice care in a manner that is not in accordance with standards of care. Senator Mike Stack (D—Philadelphia) has agreed to introduce the Senate version of this bill

Identifying gaps in health care for women veterans:

S.R. 262 has been introduced by Senator LeAnna Washington (D—Philadelphia and Montgomery) establishing a 17-member Task Force on Women Veterans’ Health Care that will study health care issues unique to women veterans, along with the quality of and access to care for women veterans. It is currently in the Senate VETERANS AFFAIRS AND EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS Committee. The House version is sponsored by Representatives Pam DeLissio (D—Philadelphia an Montgomery) and Kevin Schreiber (D-York); their co-sponsorship memo is currently being circulated, but no bill number has yet been assigned.

Fighting deep poverty among women with children:

There are three different bills designed to address this issue.

    1. S.R. 62 has been introduced by Senator Chuck McIIhinney (R—Bucks). This resolution “directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) to study approaches to family work support programs which will increase income, keep families working and mitigate the circumstance referred to as the cliff effect.  This effect occurs when working parents receive a minor increase in their income that makes them ineligible for various programs that allow them to work such as child care assistance, transportation, food stamps and free and reduced school lunches.  The phenomenon often creates disincentives for poor families to achieve self-sufficiency.” It was sent to the Senate Aging and Youth Committee for review. On June 10, this committee unanimously voted in support of the bill and the bill is now waiting for the next review by the full Senate.
    2. H.B. 2305 will soon be introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D—Montgomery). It will increase the monthly Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits for women in need. This bill will increase the maximum TANF grant amount to 50% of the Federal Poverty Level and would allow annual adjustments to be made based on revisions to this index of poverty.
    3. H.B. 2306 will soon be introduced by Rep. Michelle Brownlee (D—Philadelphia). It will increase in the TANF Earned Income Disregard from 50% to 75% to encourage individuals to work by acknowledging that working families have unique expenses that take up a large percentage of their take home pay. This increase would help offset the additional taxes, transportation, clothing, and child care co-pays associate with working. The current disregard level is not enough to offset these additional costs.  A Senate version to be introduced by Senator Judy Schwank (D—Berks) is circulating a co-sponsorship memo to introduce this same legislation in the Senate; a bill number has yet to be assigned.

Ensuring widows of state and municipal employees get fair pensions:

There are two different bills designed to address this issue. These bills require that a public employee select a retirement plan payment structure that provides no less than a fifty percent (50%) survivor annuity to the employee’s surviving spouse. These bills would bring spouses of public employees the same survivor protections that all other employees currently have. This is necessary since the federal Retirement Equity Act of 1984 does not cover employees of the state, local municipalities, or public schools. These bills mirror the spousal protections provided in federal law. Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D—Bucks) is circulating the co-sponsorship memo in the House for H.B. 2307 and H.B.2308. Senator Vincent Hughes (D—Montgomery and Philadelphia) is circulating the co-sponsorship memo in the Senate to introduce similar legislation in the chamber.

Protecting all employees against sexual harassment:

H.B. 2300 has been introduced by Rep. Michael Schlossberg (D-LeHigh) to amend the PA Human Relations Act to extend the prohibition on sexual harassment to all employers in the state. Currently law only affects employers with four or more employees. This bill is currently in the House LABOR AND INDUSTRY Committee.

Taking Action on the PA Agenda for Women’s Health

Ni-Ta-Nee NOW logo of a woman successfully scaling Nittany Mountain and working for equality

Ni-Ta-Nee NOW logo

And FYI, my local chapter of the National Organization for Women — Ni-Ta-Nee NOW — will be circulating a petition in support of this Agenda at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in State College, PA on July 10-12, 2014. Our table will be located in front of Freeze Thaw Cycles, 109 S Allen St, State College, PA 16801 from 10 am to 8 pm each day. Please drop by, learn more about this Agenda, sign the petition, register to vote, and join NOW.

Pennsylvania for Women’s Health Agenda Update

Logo for the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health

Logo for the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health

Last September, a bicameral, bipartisan caucus was created in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to review, discuss, and propose legislation to improve the health of women in the Commonwealth by addressing the genuine needs and concerns of women in the state. The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health was created as a comprehensive plan to address the real-life stories and concerns of women in terms of protecting and expanding women’s reproductive health, improving women’s economic security, and improving safety in their lives.

The First Set of Bills

On December 11, the first five bills were presented and introduced into both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The first set of bills addressed a variety of concerns for women by:

  • Making sure that women receive pregnancy accommodations in their workplace;
  • Creating a 15-foot buffer zone around entrances to health to make sure women seeking reproductive healthcare are able to access it in an orderly and safe manner;
  • Addressing “pay secrecy” and the “factor other than sex” loophole will help to end practices that have enabled employers to pay women less than men for the same work;
  • Expanding access to cervical cancer treatment. This bill is a state Pay Equity bill similar to the federal Paycheck Fairness Act;
  • Eliminating local ordinances that penalize landlords and/or tenants who call the police or emergency services “too frequently;” and
  • Outlawing “revenge porn,” a form of digital intimate-partner violence.

Of the first six set of bills, four have had some movement since my first detailed look at the bills on January 22.

Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act

The House version of the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act (HB 1892) was formally introduced and referred to the House Labor and Industry Committee where it is still awaiting a hearing. The companion Senate bill (SB 1209) was introduced on March 31 and was referred to the Senate Labor and Industry Committee; it too is awaiting its first hearing.

Pay Equity

The Pay Equity Bill basically hasn’t moved since being introduced. The House version (HB 1890) was introduced and referred to House Labor and Industry Committee on February 19. The Senate version (SB 1209) was introduced and referred to Senate Labor and Industry Committee on March 31; it has not moved since its introduction. However, the House sponsors of HB 1890 have filed a “Resolution to discharge committee from further consideration.” This was filed on April 7. This type of resolution is a rarely used tactic to force debate on a bill when the chair of the committee the bill is assigned to refuses to hold hearings on the bill. We are now waiting to see how the full House will respond to this resolution.

Victims of Crime

The bill protecting victims of crime by eliminating local ordinances that penalize landlords and/or tenants who call the police or emergency services “too frequently” (HB 1796) was introduced on October 22. After its introduction, the House Local Government Committee amended the bill to clarify that bill only applies to cases that involve victims of violence, abuse, or “individuals in an emergency” if the person making the call had a reasonable belief that police intervention or emergency assistance was needed. It unanimously passed House January 14, 2014. It was then referred to Senate Local Government Committee. January 21, 2014. Unfortunately, on March 11 the Senate Local Government Committee was tacked on an ALEC bill as an amendment, turning this good bill into a bad bill. This local ordinance sick-leave preemption bill undermines the safety of domestic violence victims. Under the amendment, local governments would lose their authority to require employers to offer paid or unpaid leave to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Leave from employment is often critical to a victim’s survival in both the short- and long-term. This amendment adds another purpose and intent to HB 1796 that conflicts with its original commitment to protect victims. Advocates, including but not limited to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Women’s Law Project, and Pennsylvania NOW, are urging the legislature to support the version of HB 1796 that was passed by the House of Representatives and to remove the problematic language that was adopted in Senate Local Government Committee. We still support the portion of HB 1796 that would eliminate local nuisance ordinances that penalize a victim for seeking help from emergency services. As a result of our subsequent lobbying to remove this amendment, the Senate has temporarily tabled the bill.

Revenge Porn Prohibition

The “Revenge Porn” bill is the most successful of this first round of bills. The Senate version (SB 1167) was amended in Senate Judiciary Committee January 14, 2014 and sent to the floor for 1st consideration. It unanimously passed the Senate on January 28, 2014 and is now residing in the House Judiciary Committee alongside HB 1901.

The Second Set of Bills

Today, the Women’s Health Agenda Caucus announced the second package of bills to be introduced. They include five bills intended to:

  • Curb political interference in providers’ medical decisions. This bill protects the doctor-patient relationship from directives to practice care in a manner that is not in accordance with standards of care;
  • Identify gaps in health care for women veterans by establishing the Task Force on Women Veterans’ Health Care to study health issues facing women veterans;
  • Fight deep poverty among women with children. This bill Includes a study of family work support programs in the Commonwealth, increases the monthly Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits for women in need; and increases in the TANF Earned Income Disregard;
  • Ensure that widows of state and municipal employees get fair pensions by requiring public employees to obtain spousal consent for benefit payment structures that do not provide at least a 50% survivor benefit; and
  • Protect all employees against sexual harassment by extending the prohibition on sexual harassment to all employers in the state.

Pennsylvania NOW is one of the organizations supporting this full agenda to improve women’s health. I am their lobbyist. At the press conference this morning, I handed out our statement of support. In that statement, I supported each of these bills, saying, “It’s high time that doctors were supported in their right to refuse to provide medically inaccurate information. The increases to TANF cash assistance grant levels and the eligibility asset limit will encourage saving and financial independence. We’re also glad to see sexual harassment protections extended to all workers, and see that female veteran’s health concerns finally get the attention it deserves.”

As advocates for women’s health and equity we are pleased to see the legislature taking a pro-active stance to help improve the lives of women here in Pennsylvania. As Caryn Hunt said in the Pennsylvania NOW press release, ““The women of Pennsylvania need – and now finally have – champions in the legislature who recognize that government must work for all of the people, women included.” We are pleased and “strongly support this Agenda that puts the health and well-being of women and their families first.”

(note: The bill numbers associated with each of these bills will be announced on this blog as soon as I know what they are or will be.)

 

Pennsylvania’s Proposed Women’s Health Agenda

Kate Michelman

Kate Michelman discussing strategy with women’s health care advocates and members of the General Assembly Health Care Agenda Caucus.

Yesterday (Monday, September 30, 2013), I attended a two-hour meeting with Pennsylvania’s House and Senate members of the joint Women’s Health Agenda Caucus led by Representative Dan Frankel of Pittsburgh. Some of the advocacy groups attending the meeting included the Women’s Law Project (WLP), Women Vote PA, and members of the Pennsylvanians for Choice coalition including Pennsylvania NOW whom I represented.

For a very long time Pennsylvania has focused on restricting women’s access to abortion services – currently accounting for over 1270 pages of legislation and regulations in the state.  This wrong-headed approach to health assumes that women’s sole need is to protect them from safe, legal access to decent abortion care services.  In other words, the state has wrong-headedly been crafting laws and regulations to deny access to abortion, sending more and more women to the back alleys similar to the Gosnell clinic and ignoring the broader issues of women’s health equity.

Women’s concerns about their health are broadly based in bias based on gender. Terry L. Fromson, Amal Bass, Carol E. Tracy, Susan Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project  created a report entitled Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women in 2012.  The WLP is Pennsylvania’s feminist legal organization that engages in litigation, advocacy, and education to ensure women’s equality and treatment in Pennsylvania. This report set the context for yesterday’s meeting.  The WLP framed the health care agenda as follows in this report and in the meeting this morning:

The legal and social status of American women has changed dramatically in the last fifty years. Half a century ago, it was legal to segregate jobs by sex, to refuse to hire or promote on the basis of a person’s sex, to fire women who became pregnant, and to limit the number of women admitted to professional schools such as law and medicine. Sexual and domestic violence were hidden from public view and public policy. Abortion was illegal and the birth control pill was not yet on the market. Today, women have taken their place in the working world and educational opportunities for women have expanded exponentially. Sexual and domestic violence are recognized as crimes and some resources are available to its victims. Abortion is legal and birth control is available.

Despite these advances, deeply embedded cultural biases and stereotypes about women’s place in society continue to impede women’s equal participation in society. In our homes and communities women are subjected to violence, poverty, and the burden of care taking responsibilities. In the workplace, women are paid less than men for the same work, remain concentrated in stereotypically female low-paying occupations, are subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and care giving, and are denied advancement to managerial and higher paying positions. In school, young women are denied their fair share of sports opportunities and are sexually harassed and violated. Women are denied essential reproductive health care and subjected to discrimination in access to insurance coverage. Women pay more than men for the same coverage, and pregnancy is a preexisting condition that often denies pregnant women access to insurance coverage and therefore maternity care.  Access to abortion has been limited by burdensome legislative requirements, and providers and patients have been terrorized by an increasingly violent opposition. Attacks on access to contraceptive services have grown.

While many laws have been adopted to eliminate sex discrimination at work and at school, gaps persist that must be filled and enforcement needs to be strengthened. This is particularly true in Pennsylvania. While some Pennsylvania cities have outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of care-giving responsibilities and provide other accommodations for women who work, the Pennsylvania legislature has failed to adopt a statewide prohibition on discrimination on the basis of caregiver status or to provide family leave for caregivers. In Pennsylvania, the law permits insurers to price the cost of health insurance higher for women than for men, resulting in women paying more for individual health insurance policies and small employers paying more for health insurance for a predominantly female workforce. Pennsylvania’s sexual assault laws have for the most part eliminated discriminatory provisions, but the myths and stereotypes that continue to infect the criminal justice system hinder the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. The health care perspective on domestic violence and sexual assault is far too limited. Sexual assault is treated as a health care matter primarily in the immediate aftermath of a rape, even though the physical and emotional health consequences can be long lasting. Although a number of health care providers recognize that domestic violence is also a health issue, screening for domestic violence in health care settings is not universal. Poverty, which disproportionately impacts women, exacerbates the impact of sex bias in all of these realms….

Pennsylvania, with 6.5 million women, has consistently been found deficient in national studies on women’s health care measures. In their 2010 health report card, the National Women’s Law Center and Oregon Health & Science University placed Pennsylvania 32 among the 50 states and graded it unsatisfactory with respect to the status of women’s health….

To alleviate women’s health problems, it is necessary to eliminate adverse experiences — discrimination and bias — early in life and throughout life — and to improve access to health care, with an emphasis on care essential to women (pp. x-xii).

Representative Frankel heard this call to refocus the legislature from attacking women’s reproductive health to focusing — just like New York state’s “10 Point Plan for Women’s Equality” — on redirecting legislation in the General Assembly towards a women’s health equity agenda. So yesterday, almost 20 legislators from both houses attended a meeting with advocates seeking to improve women’s lives and health through a broad review and revision of Pennsylvania law.  The agenda covers reproductive health, women’s economic security, and women’s safety.

The ideas for change come from real-life stories of women in the state.  Calls to service agencies. Cries for help on hot lines. Requests for advocacy. And of course lots of research to back up the anecdotal stories.  The 24 suggested changes to Pennsylvania law that were presented are in areas where either no legislation has been introduced or where legislation to improve the bias are lagging or need to be revisited.  We, as advocates, understand that there are other areas of concern, but believe these health care agenda items are a good start.

Some of these ideas are conceptual at this point. Some have some preliminary model wording for new legislation, and some are already in the works.  Here’s the agenda:

Protect and Expand Women’s Reproductive Health Rights

  1. Pregnancy Accommodations:  Require employers to provide accommodations to pregnant employees with temporary pregnancy-related conditions to allow workers to remain employed throughout their pregnancies while imposing minimal burdens on employers.
  2. Support for Breastfeeding Mothers in the Workplace: Require all employers to provide compensated break time and a private, sanitary (not a bathroom) for all employees who need to express milk.
  3. Buffer Zones:  Enact a statewide reproductive health care clinic buffer zone statute to protect safe access to essential health care.
  4. Inmate Shackling: Strengthen pregnant inmate shackling law (Act 45 of 2010) to cover the entire pregnancy and a reasonable post-partum period for mother-child bonding and to eliminate the tasering of any woman known to be pregnant.
  5. Medical Professional Conscientious Right to Refuse to Deliver Medically Inaccurate Information: Protect physician-patient relationships from political intrusion.

    Improve Women’s Economic Security

  6. TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) Grant Amount: Increase TANF cash assistance grant levels.
  7. TANF Asset Limit: Increase the TANF eligibility asset limit to encourage saving and financial independence.
  8. Earned Income Disregard: Increase the earned income disregard and apply it to applicants as well as recipients.  FYI, the earned income disregard allows very-low income workers to continue receiving TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid if they make 50% or less of the poverty level.  This proposed legislation would raise this “disregard” level to 75% and would apply to applicants as well as recipients.
  9. Childcare Works Waiting List: Eliminate the childcare works waiting list.
  10. TANF Pre-Application Job Search: Eliminate or modify the TANF pre-application job search requirements.
  11. Minimum Wage: Increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00/hour.
  12. Gender Wage Gap: Strengthen Pennsylvania law to eliminate the 24% gender wage gap by prohibiting retaliation against employees for discussing wages (“pay secrecy”) and closing the “factor other than sex” defense to apply only to bona fide business-related factors.
  13. Family Responsibilities Employment Discrimination: Prohibit family responsibilities discrimination in employment by amending the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to prohibit family status discrimination in employment pursuant to an expanded definition of familial status to encompass the true scope of familial responsibilities shouldered by employees.
  14. Paid Family and Sick Leave: Require all employers to provide employees with paid family and sick leave
  15. Spousal Pension Benefits: Require spousal consent when a retiring state employee chooses how his or her pension benefits should be paid consistent with federal law protecting each spouse from his or her spouse’s selection of a pension benefit in all privately-sponsored pension plans and laws adopted by other states.
  16. Domestic Worker Protection: Amend Pennsylvania anti-discrimination laws to provide domestic workers protection from employment discrimination
  17. Sexual Harassment: Extend the prohibition on sexual harassment in employment to all employers, even small employers.

    Protect Women’s Personal Safety

  18. Paid Leave for Domestic Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking Victims: Require employers to provide paid leave to obtain assistance for and pursue legal protection against domestic and sexual violence and stalking.
  19. Housing Discrimination: Prohibit private and public housing discrimination against domestic violence victims.
  20. Civil Orders of Protection for Sexual Violence and Stalking Victims: Authorize courts to issue civil orders of protection for sex crime and stalking victims.
  21. Absolute Privilege for Student Victims: Protect victims/witnesses of sexual assault who testify in school grievance proceedings from being sued by their harassers.
  22. Human Trafficking: Strengthen Pennsylvania’s criminal statute on human trafficking.
  23. Veterans’ Real Estate Tax Exemption: Amend Pennsylvania law to provide veterans real estate tax exemption for veterans suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) due to sexual victimization during service and appoint women representatives to the House and Senate Committees on Veteran Affairs and to the Pennsylvania State Veterans Commission.
  24. Voting Reform: Reform voting rules to provide online registration, same day in person registration, early voting, including early in person voting on weekends.

These ideas will be discussed in continuing meetings between members of the General Assembly’s Health Care Agenda Caucus and advocates for women’s equality.  I’ll post more on these issues as this legislative program becomes better defined.

Let’s Strengthen, Not Weaken Social Security

Social Security.  It’s been around for 78 years.  It’s a benefit that everyone (and their family members) who has worked in the United States is eligible to receive. You pay into the system when you are working and then when you retire or become disabled, you, your spouse, and your dependent children receive monthly benefits based on you earned income history.  Currently almost 58 million Americans receive $816 billion annually in Social Security benefits.  Most (70%) are retirees and their family members.  The rest are either disabled (19%) or are survivors (11%) of a deceased spouse or parent who would have otherwise qualified for Social Security.  We all like, expect, and will, if not already, depend upon Social Security to sustain our financial well-being and independence.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Supported Social Security

Yet it is under attack.  And has been for almost a decade.  Until 2005, both political parties fully supported Social Security.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a letter to his brother Edgar on November 8, 1954 said:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

This was right after he responded to a letter to a constituent shortly after signing a bill into law expanding Social Security.  In that letter dated September 30, 1954, President Eisenhower said:

The actual fact is that by and large the productivity of a national economy must [emphasis added], at any given time, support the people then living in the nation. This means that, roughly, the people from twenty to sixty bear the burden of supporting themselves, and in addition, support those from birth to twenty years of age, and those from sixty to eighty.

The Three-Legged Stool

At that point in our history, both sides of the aisle fully supported the idea of Social Security as the third leg of the financial stool (the other two legs being pensions and savings).

Over the years fewer and fewer people have had employment that contained a defined benefit pension.  And fewer people have retirement savings. People need all three legs.  With the other two legs being cut or chipped away at, Social Security remains potentially their only source of income should they retire or become disabled.

The Bush Administration Starts the Attacks on Social Security

The attacks on Social Security really started hard and heavy in 2005 when then President George W. Bush called for the privatization of Social Security and a redesign of Medicare that created the so-called “doughnut hole.”  I first started working on this issue that year, organizing a protest rally on the Penn State University-University Park Campus when Bush came to town to try to tell the Future Farmers of America that Social Security was a lost cause.

Over 500 people were at that protest.  Holding up signs like:

 

 2005 Rally at Penn State University Protesting the Privatization of Social Security

Bush is Wrong! Ike was Right! Hands Off My Social Security: 2005 Rally at Penn State University Protesting the Privatization of Social Security

  • Hands Off My Social Security
  • Bush is WRONG!
  • Ike was RIGHT!
Sign at Protest that says: "No! No! No Social Security Privatization Fiddle"

2005 Rally at Penn State University Protesting the Privatization of Social Security

  •  No! No! No Social Security Privatization Fiddle and

 

Banner at 2005 PSU Protest saying: "Social Security: Don't Gamble with Our Future"

Don’t Gamble with Our Future: 2005 Rally at Penn State University Protesting the Privatization of Social Security

  • Social Security: Don’t Gamble with OUR Future (referring to privatizing and placing Social Security payments in the volatile stock market).

Organizations and individuals fought back and Social Security was not privatized but Medicare was compromised when the prescription drug benefits (Part D) were written into law in 2006. This hole forces individuals on Medicare in 2013 to pay 100% of their drug costs once  you reach their Medicare Part D plan’s initial coverage limit of $2,970 and ends when you spend a total of $4,750.

This was the opening gambit to destroy Social Security. These attacks are continuing to this day.  Now it is the Tea Party Republicans who are doing the attacking.  And if they succeed, women and people of color in particular will pay the penalty.

The Seven Principals to Strengthen Social Security

Rather than decimate our safety net that we all paid for and for which we are due, we should be strengthening rather than weakening Social Security. According to StrengthenSocialSecurity.org – a coalition of over 300 national and state organizations representing over 50 million Americans, there are seven principles to fully support and strengthen our Social Security system:

  1. Social Security did not cause the federal deficit; its benefits should not be cut to reduce the deficit.  And anyone who tells you Social Security is going broke is either misinformed or deliberately trying to mislead. The Social Security Trust Fund is viable through 2033.
  2. Social Security should not be privatized in whole or in part.  Unlike Wall St. and the stock market, Social Security is a reliable, risk free source of income. These benefits are guaranteed every month and are adjusted to the rise in the cost of living.
  3. Social Security should not be means-tested.
  4. Congress should act in the coming few years to close Social Security’s funding gap by requiring those who are most able to afford it to pay somewhat more. This means that the cap on payment into Social Security should be lifted for higher income individuals.
  5. Social Security’s retirement age, already scheduled to increase from 65 to 67, should not be raised further. Increasing the retirement age disproportionately affects low-income women. The life expectancy for low-income women has decreased over the last 25 years and they are more likely to have jobs that compromise their health. Increasing the retirement age would amount to a 15% benefit cut for low-income women workers.
  6. Social Security’s benefits should not be reduced, including [benefit-reducing] changes to the COLA or the benefit formula. Republican leaders want to impose a less accurate COLA formula – the chained-CPI. The current COLA (Cost of Living Alliance) formula is based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which estimates the price of stuff we need (like food) changes over time.  The chained-CPI assumes that when the prices of something goes up, people will automatically replace it for something cheaper (e.g., beef would be substituted with chicken and maybe even eventually with dog food); therefore the COLA can be calculated at a lower rising level.  That con only work for the short-term since in some cases (e.g., health care) there are no substitutes and for others (e.g., the food example), people either can’t or won’t go that far without compromising their lives. Over a 30-year retirement, that means that a person would be losing a full month’s worth of Social Security every year. For senior women who often don’t have extra savings or a pension, the gap between their regular expenses and what would be covered over time under a chained-CPI would be disastrous.
  7. Social Security’s benefits should be increased for those who are most disadvantaged. This would include low-income workers, LGBTQ families in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages, college students whose working parent has died, and people who have to drop out of the workforce to provide caregiving to their family members.

Increasing the Benefits for the Most Disadvantaged

I’d like to look at this last principle in more depth by focusing on women and Social Security because women make up the combined majority of people in these four groups.  So, why should benefits for these four groups be increased?

Low Income Workers

Low Income workers are disproportionately made up of women and people of color. Living hand to mouth, this group of working-age people have little ability to build up any retirement savings.  So one leg of the stool is cut very short.  And unlike high-income workers who worked at a company with full benefits, they are less likely to have any retirement pension at all.  The second leg is also cut very short. As a result, nearly 80% of a low-income worker’s retirement income is made up entirely of Social Security benefits.  And because of the cutbacks in Medicare with the aforementioned doughnut hole, this group of retired people – mostly women who live longer – are further squeezed.  This group of retirees, rather than having their livelihood threatened by a chained-CPI reduction should, instead have and enhanced benefit by creating a Special Minimum amount of Social Security benefits for lifetime low-income earners.

In 2012, the National Organization for Women Foundation, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a report called “Breaking the Social Security Glass Ceiling: A Proposal on How to Modernize Women’s Benefits.”  This report presents a proposal to enhance this baseline level of Social Security benefits for low-income workers. They suggest improving the Special Minimum Benefit by:

  • Increasing the benefit to equal 150 percent of the aged poverty level for workers with 30 years of credit;
  • Reducing the wages required to receive a year of credit toward the minimum benefit to the amount required for four Social Security credits;
  • Indexing future increases in the minimum benefit to growth in wages rather than the CPI;
  • Providing up to ten family service years of credit toward the computation of the benefit; and
  • Increasing the Supplemental Security Income (aka SSI) general income exclusion to $100 and adjust it in future years for inflation.

LGBTQ Families

In June, the US Supreme Court, in a case known as United States v. Windsor, overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act. They declared that committed same-sex couples who have had their relationships legally recognized as marriage must receive all of the federal benefits, including Social Security, associated with legally-recognized marriages.

Same-sex couples, who live in states that don’t recognize their marriages, however are currently out of luck.  In the 37 states without marriage equality, same-sex couples and their families are considered legal strangers. A same-sex household with one wage earner forfeits $675 monthly, the equivalent of two months’ worth of groceries for two people.

The Glass Ceiling report makes the following proposal to address continuing discrimination in these 37 states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages:

  • Amend the Social Security Act to define “wife,” and “husband” so that they no longer rely on gender-specific pronouns;
  • Provide eligibility to spousal benefits to individuals who are members of same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships, civil unions, or any other such relationship as the states, by law, may prescribe;
  • Extend to the children of these relationships, benefits under the same terms and conditions as children of heterosexual couples; and
  • Directly address the issue of disparate state-based DOMA laws by declaring that all federal family eligibility determinations under Social Security be exempted from the provisions of state-based Defense of Marriage Acts.

College Students and their Parents

Up until 1981, students attending college whose working parent had died, become disabled, or retired were eligible for Social Security benefits under their parent’s Social Security until they reached the age of 22.  That year, all post-secondary benefits were eliminated.  Most of the recipients of this benefit were disproportionately children of parents in blue-collar jobs, African-Americans, and those with lower incomes than other college students.  As a result of this change in the law, single parents—again most often women—would often defer saving funds for their own retirement in order to assist their kids through college. This decision results either in a a lower level of retirement funds for his/her parent(s) and/or a reduced likelihood of the student attending college if the parent and child are unable to fund the student’s post-secondary education.

The Glass Ceiling report makes the following proposal to address this issue:

  • Reinstate benefits for children of disabled or deceased workers until age 22 when the child is attending a college or vocational school on a full-time basis.

Caregivers

In addition to the disparity in pay between men and women, one of the main reasons women’s Social Security benefits are lower on average than that of men is that they are more likely to take time off from work to care for children or elderly and sick adult family members (spouses, parents, in-laws, and other family members).  The Social Security Administration uses a calculation known as the “average Indexed Monthly earnings primary insurance amount” (aIMe PIa) to calculate the benefit levels of all beneficiaries. Because of the way that the Social Security Administration calculates the benefit level, any temporary interruption in one’s income can significantly reduce how much Social Security a person can receive.

This affects single women as well as married women since both can and do have children and do have other family members that may need some care. Currently the only way to compensate for this care-giving duty is to provide the caregiver a spousal add-on benefit. This unfair treatment of caregivers in the Social Security formula needs to be changed so that we can continue to care for our family members without jeopardizing the financial security of the caregiver.  The Glass Ceiling report also addresses this issue by recommending a change in the way the aIMe PIa is calculated:

  • Compute the AIME PIA by imputing an annual wage for each family service year so that total earnings for the year would equal 50 percent of that year’s average annual wage index. Family service years would be those in which an individual provides care to children under the age of six or to elderly or disabled family members. Up to five family service years could be granted to any worker.

These Improvements are Affordable: With Some Changes

We can pay for these improvements, and simultaneously ensure the solvency of our Social Security system for 75 years or more. Changes to how Social Security could be funded are well-known. We just need to do it!  The funds for these changes are available IF we:

  • Remove the cap on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax.  Rather than capping employee, employers, and the self-employed person’s payroll taxes on the first  $113,700 of income, the law should be changed to entirely remove this cap and require millionaires and billionaires to pay the same rate as the rest of us.  This one change would provide most of the needed resources.  According to Virginia Reno and Joni Lavery of the National Academy of Social Insurance, this option [by itself] would eliminate much of Social Security’s current actuarial deficit by producing revenue equal to about 2.17 percent of taxable payroll.”
  • Slowly increase the Social Security contribution rate by 1/20 of one percent over the next 20 years.  This option, according to Reno and Lavery “would provide revenue equal to 1.34 percent of taxable payroll.”
  • Treat all salary deductions like 401(K) plans.  Currently we pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on any retirement plan, such as a 401(K), a 403(b), or a 527 plan.  We do not pay these taxes on that portion of our salary we put aside to pay for any flexible spending account, such as a medical savings account.  If we were to  treat and tax flexible spending accounts just like our retirement plans, Reno and Lavery report that we would provide an about  an additional 0.48 percent of taxable payroll.

These three changes amount to 3.99% of payroll taxes and would fully close the current actuarial deficit (2.67 percent of payroll) according to Reno and Lavery.  The additional 1.32% would fund the proposals to strengthen Social Security as recommended in the Glass Ceiling report without hurting women, people of color, LGBTQ people, caregivers, college student, and low-income families.

The funds are there.  Let’s make it happen. Let’s strengthen, not weaken Social Security for everyone.