* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Subhead: The initiative backed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren seeks Social Security benefits for caregivers. NOW is collecting pledges by women across the country to turn out and vote for candidates who will support the initiative. Byline: Sharon Johnson
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WOMENSENEWS--As the midterm election heads into its final weeks, advocates for women's financial security are girding up for another round of battles over Social Security and Medicare, the age-old safety net programs upon which women disproportionately depend.
The Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare launched a national initiative Oct. 9 to create grassroots support for ending the gender gap in retirement benefits to decrease the nearly 11 percent poverty rate among senior women, which is 50 percent higher than that of male retirees.
Called "Eleanor's Hope"--in honor of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt who championed passage of the Social Security Act in 1935--the initiative proposes sweeping changes to modernize the system to reflect women's contributions as breadwinners as well as family caregivers.
"Women have a lot at stake in November's election and beyond," said Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, last week at a press conference organized by the committee in Washington, D.C. "Although Social Security is vitally important to all Americans, it is especially important to women because they live longer than do men, have more health care needs and receive less in Social Security benefits because they worked in low-wage jobs or took time out of the workforce for caregiving."
Founded in 1982 by former Congressman James Roosevelt, the son of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, the committee led the fight against privatization of Social Security by the George W. Bush Administration in 2005.
Congress must strengthen Social Security because the country is on the edge of a retirement crisis, said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, during the press conference.
One in five people who are nearing retirement has no savings for their later years, notes the Federal Reserve. In addition to low wages, the 2008 recession and the loss of jobs have taken their toll, other studies show.
"For millions of Americans, Social Security is a lifeline that enables them to live an independent life in dignity," Warren said. "Two-thirds of beneficiaries over 85 are women. Half of all unmarried female Social Security beneficiaries receive 90 percent of their income from Social Security."
Modernizing Social Security
Rep. Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, said at the press conference that she hoped proposals to modernize the Social Security system would gain traction in Congress in January because "women, people of color and low-income females are counting on us to update and improve this critical safety net."
Social Security represents 90 percent or more of income for 49 percent of African American and 55 percent of Hispanic retirees, reports the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The initiative takes a comprehensive long-range approach to preserving Social Security. In addition to public retirement credits for people who take time off from paid employment to serve as family caregivers and for retirees who have worked in low-wage occupations, the plan also calls for strengthening the Social Security cost-of-living allowance and boosting benefits of all current and future beneficiaries.
By flagging the need to expand Social Security, Warren and Moore have sounded the alarm to voters that entitlement cuts may be on the table again in January.
Ensuring the long-term solvency of Social Security was an area of fierce partisan debate in the 113th Congress. Democrats proposed lifting the cap on the amount higher income earners pay in Social Security taxes while Republicans backed increasing the age for retirement.
Battles over Medicare also raged. House Budget Chair Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, called for a premium support plan that included a cap on future spending on Medicare. Future retirees would have been offered a menu of private insurance plans and traditional Medicare and an annual subsidy to help pay for the insurance they chose.
Four bills to protect Social Security died in Congressional committees in 2013. Moore's bill would have provided a 5 percent increase in the benefits for the very old, restored benefits of survivors in college up to age 22 and other changes.
In addition to the National Committee, the National Organization for Women, the largest grassroots feminist organization in the nation, is collecting pledges by women across the country to turn out and vote for candidates who will support the initiative.
"Candidates for office need to realize that women, along with the men in their lives, will vote for those who support wage equality and policies that ensure their retirement security," said Terry O'Neill, NOW president, in the press conference. "During the 2010 midterm election women didn't turn out. We can't let that happen again because Social Security and Medicare are too important to retirement security."
President's Party Loses Seats
Since the 1840s, the president's party has lost seats in 40 of the 43 midterm elections. In 2010, only about 37 percent of the voting age population voted, which cost Democrats the House. In the 2012 presidential election, turnout rebounded to around 54 percent.
Candidates' views on the safety net are playing a critical role in voters' choices in 12 battleground states for the Senate, found a poll released Oct. 6 by the Washington-based nonprofits Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund and Democracy Corps. The Republicans need a net gain of six seats to become the majority, which would allow them to set the legislative agenda during the last two years of the Obama administration.
Throughout the midterm election, Republicans had a two point advantage in these highly competitive races, but they have lost it in recent weeks, noted Stan Greenberg, founder of Democracy Corps, which seeks to make government more responsive.
"The Democrats' 'in your shoes' agenda for working women and men and strong populist message has caused the Democrats to forge ahead by two points," Greenberg said at the press conference where he released the findings.
The top reasons cited by likely voters planning to cast ballots for the Democrats were Democrats' positions on job creation and improving wages (55 percent), women's issues (41 percent), Medicare and Social Security (37 percent) and the Affordable Care Act (34 percent).
Page Gardner is president of Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund, which seeks to improve voting participation of unmarried women.
"The poll also showed that the Democrats are largely poised to retain control of the Senate through the support of unmarried women and people of color," she said at the press conference. "Unmarried women favored Democratic candidates in these states by an overwhelming 22 points."
One-third of the highly contested Senate contests include the seats of Democrats who proposed bills to protect Social Security and Medicare in the 113th Congress: Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who are retiring, and Mark Begich of Alaska and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who are seeking second terms.
The other races include: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana and North Carolina.
Sharon Johnson is a New York freelance writer.
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