This past year, I traveled the state talking with people about their retirement security. They shared their experiences and their fears with me. They care deeply about their families and worry about providing for their children. They want to prepare for the future, but they do not always know what steps to take.
I have listened to stories from people helping aging relatives who cannot afford to take care of their basic needs. I have talked with seniors who do not want to give up their homes and independence, but cannot afford the help they need to stay in their communities.
This problem is even more acute for women than men. According to a report from the National Institute on Retirement Security released in March of 2016, women are 80 percent more likely to be impoverished in retirement than men. This economic disparity gets even worse as women age.
It should not be surprising that women have smaller retirement nest eggs than men, but several factors that have compounded over time have made matters more difficult for your grandmother. Many women in her generation did not work outside of the home. If they did work outside of the home, they frequently were paid less than men because they were not seen as eligible for certain jobs or did not receive equal pay for their work. This made it difficult for them to accumulate retirement savings and healthy pensions. If they worked part time, they probably were not even eligible for retirement benefits. What is surprising is that women are living decades longer than they ever thought they would. What they saved and inherited from their husbands or families simply is not enough to live on for the rest of their lives.
Women today may have had more time, opportunities and resources to prepare for retirement, but they are still behind. Frequently, they are helping their parents and children at the expense of their own retirement savings. Women need to know that they are not alone. This is a growing national problem.
Here are some ideas that taken together can make a difference. First, we must stabilize the safety net of Social Security and make it more generous for people who raised families and outlive their spouse. Stabilizing Medicare without cutting health benefits is critical as well, since healthcare is a larger cost in retirement. Second, we need to expand the ways employees, including part time employees, can save for retirement and encourage employers to offer more options. This should be part of every employee’s compensation package, not just for professionals. Finally, women need equal pay for equal work. This is more than a women’s issue, it is a family issue. Every dollar a woman is denied puts her and her family behind, not just in income but in savings for the future.
We must advocate for ourselves with our elected officials and our employers. It is not too late to make a difference.
Deborah Ross is an attorney in Raleigh. She represented Wake County in the North Carolina House from 2003-2013.