Family Values?

Before I disappear again to write two papers in three weeks, I thought I’d share some statistics that have been bothering me ever since I received the fact sheets from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The first talks about unemployment. Despite cheers to the contrary, our economy is not back on track – at least not for people who are looking for jobs rather than investments. Other than the steady upward trend of unemployment rates across gender lines, what also caught my eye is the heavy hit women who maintain families are taking. Consistently, throughout the time period shown – December 2007 through December 2009 – they have the highest unemployment rate (based on monthly unemployment rate, not seasonally adjusted). Compared to married women, the rate is twice as high for women who maintain families almost every month! Of course, this could be an artifact: Maybe married women are more likely to give up looking for a job, which means that they won’t be captured in these numbers anymore. Either way, though, clearly our family values are out of whack if the breadwinners get short changed! Rather than selling wedding rings for food, we should work for a society that has increased income equality and spreads out employment so that everybody can survive.

One of the governmental perks for married people are social security benefits to the surviving widow or widower. According to IWPR, almost 13% of social security benefits go to survivors of deceased workers. The percentage of women receiving these benefits as surviving spouse has declined from 57% in 1960 to 28% in 2008. This decline is largely due to women’s increased labor force participation and the shrinking wage gap (from 60 cents per dollar to 77 cents over the same time period). As a single by choice, my social security benefits will go back into the general pot. I cannot assign them to anyone else. Is that right? Should I, as a single person, be allowed to designate my beneficiary? To me, the social security survivor benefit is tied up with two things: Sexism and matrimania. It originated from the assumption that women do not work and are fully dependent on the male earner who is their husband. We did not want to have starving widows. These assumptions are outdated: Most women earn our own income and an increasing percentage of women are not married. So, I think, social security benefits should go back into the pot for everybody, no beneficiaries period. This is also a good example for the approach to rethinking laws advocated by Nancy Polikoff. If our real goal is to prevent that people over 60, say, do not have enough money to live on, we need to address that. (And remembering the poor women I worked with way back when I was a full-time volunteer in an adult day care center, it is a total joke to presume that the welfare system here in the US keeps anybody out of poverty.) Maybe a better way to address that is to ensure a basic level of income for everybody, independent of their marital status, maybe even independent of age.

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