The latest hot idea - to let workers put part of their Social Security savings in personal investment accounts - could be a high-risk proposition for older women, who disproportionately depend on the government's guaranteed safety net.
Because they generally have lower wages, spend fewer years in the work force, live longer, and tend to be less confident money managers than men, women could be hurt by proposals that put more risk in Social Security and reduce its insurance benefits, which now are lifelong, subsidized, and rise with inflation, some experts say."This is a serious women's issue because women rely on Social Security more than men," says Kelly Olsen, an analyst for the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a private organization. "But it's being completely ignored in the excitement over privatizing Social Security."
Political momentum is building. Last week, the National Commission on Retirement Policy, a group of lawmakers from both major parties, economists, and business executives, put forward the most comprehensive plan yet for reshaping Social Security to ensure its future solvency and give American workers a personal stake in deciding how retirement accounts will grow.
The proposal, which is to be aired at the White House and turned into legislation, would allow individuals to set up personal accounts and have several choices, including the stock market, in how to invest 2 percentage points of the 12.4 percent payroll tax they and their employers now pay to finance Social Security. The rest of the tax would stay in the current Social Security insurance fund.
The plan would guarantee retirees a minimum Social Security payment, but would reduce benefit levels overall to make up for the diversions into personal accounts and gradually raise the retirement age to 70.
"The accounts are gender-neutral. The idea is to promote savings for everyone and give everybody credit for what they put into Social Security," says Eugene Steuerle, an economist at the Urban Institute and a member of the commission.
Some analysts say Social Security's current gender gap will widen with partial privatization. In 1996, the average monthly check, based on life earn-ings, was $838 for men and $644 for women. Women workers, who make 70 cents for every dollar men earn, will have less to invest in their private accounts, and, being more conservative in their investments, women could likely retire with smaller nest eggs.
These concerns may not be central in Washington's current policy debate, but the issue of retirement security is on the front burner for millions of female baby boomers and near-seniors. Today, more than half of single women over 65 depend solely on Social Security, and an estimated 22 percent of them live below the poverty line.
Peg Keleher of Quincy, Mass., who has been advising investment clubs in New England for 10 years, says many women who grew up clueless about personal finance and were caught up in the "Cinderella thing" of depending on Prince Charming to provide, are frantic about their futures. "They don't know what to do or how to do it, but they know they need to do something right away," she said.
"Women are going to be terrified if and when Social Security comes to them and says, `We're going to give you 5 percent of the money to invest for re-tire-ment as you see fit,"' Keleher said. "They are very conservative investors. They don't see the benefit of the risk, all they see is the risk."
Many men might share the anxiety of managing their Social Security accounts. It's as much a myth to say all men are savvy investors as it is to say all women are averse to financial risk. Only about 25 to 30 percent of US households own stocks or mutual funds now, and just 50 percent of American workers are even covered by pension plans, which may not give individuals choices in managing the assets.
Neal Cutler, a professor of financial gerontology at Widener University in Delaware, has done surveys on Social Security privatization and says he's convinced that most Americans are not ready to undertake risks with their retirement funds or knowledgeable enough about financial markets to make good investment decisions.
"But there is also a gender gap, and it's over confidence," Cutler said. "When men know the facts, their confidence in financial decision-making shoots way up. With women, their confidence in making the right decisions tends to be much lower than their level of knowledge, and it's lower than men's."
This month the National Center on Women and Aging at Brandeis University reported that women in midlife lack the most basic information about managing their money and are not preparing adequately for their retirements. According to a poll of more than 600 women over age 50 with household incomes of more than $50,000, many fear being defrauded by financial planners and fewer than than 10 percent said they were savvy about stocks, mutual funds, annuities, or bonds.
To be sure, there's a generational factor at work: Younger women are more likely to have careers, lifetime earnings equivalent to men's, trust in a boom-ing stock market, and a notion that Social Security is, at best, a supplement in some far-off retirement. For them, privatizing the system makes sense.
Proponents say privatization is fairer to women than the current system, which can ignore a woman's earnings altogether and base monthly checks on the spouse's higher benefits.
"It's extraordinarily discriminatory to the woman, usually, who gets nothing out of Social Security for her work," Steuerle said. "These women would be helped by privatization."
For older women, who didn't grow up with 401 plans, spent more time out of the work force than in it, and learned from their mothers that men managed the money and the market could crash, Social Security is supposed to be a durable safety net.
"This is and should be scary to a lot of women. They don't have big incomes, they don't have big nest eggs, they don't have the experience, and suddenly they're told `be more adventurous with your money,' " said Cindy Hounsell, executive director of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, a nonprofit group.
The biggest adjustment for retirees who participated in a partly privatized program would be a smaller monthly Social Security check.
Moreover, the current system has features helpful to women that wouldn't pertain to the private investment account. Benefits now increase annually with inflation; they are "progressive," or subsidized, for widows and spouses who have never worked; and they are generally available, based on a former spouse's earnings, to individuals who were divorced after 10 years of marriage.
There's also the annuity issue. Because women live longer than men, their monthly payouts from an investment account would be stretched out over more retirement years and potentially be smaller. Retirees might be allowed to drain the account or buy an annuity that expired at death, leaving nothing for the surviving spouse.
"If a wife doesn't have the right to have her name on a husband's private account, what's to stop him from spending it on a girlfriend or setting up a business that fails?" asked Edith Fierst, a retired lawyer who was a member of the 1994-96 Advisory Council on Social Security. "I think it's a really dangerous thing for women."