If you are married for 30 years and then divorce, and your own earnings are so low that you are better off getting Social Security based on your spouse's earnings, you will receive 50 percent of the benefit, while your erstwhile mate receives 100 percent.

This is one of the reasons so many women live off almost impossibly small Social Security checks. Many have no pensions because they did not work, or their employers did not provide pensions, or their husbands' pensions died with them. Other women have low benefits because they devoted many years to child care and elder care and were out of the work force. When their day came to retire, they found those caretaking years became zeros in averaging their Social Security wages. When you calculate Social Security benefits in a 40-year span of potential employment, and you figure the average woman spends 16 years in child care and 17 years in elder care, that can add up to a lot of low-income years.

Social Security was designed for a society of couples, while today, 40 percent of adult women are single, says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority. On average, she says, women receive about two-thirds of what men do from Social Security. The National Council of Women's Organizations, which represents 110 groups, has now marshaled years of research on Social Security and set up a task force to prevent proposed changes from hurting women and to use the reform climate to do some rainmaking for them. These efforts came together at a retreat last week at the Airlie House conference center in Warrenton when the task force met for three days to develop a package of reforms to address both solvency of the system and improving the incomes of women. The task force was headed by Heidi Hartmann of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, which sponsored the meeting that included Social Security experts in and outside of government.

"This may be the last reform for a while," Smeal says, "and we want women's position improved. We're looking at divorced, single, widowed and married women. We also realized that whatever we proposed, we wanted to make sure it helps solvency.

"The thing we worked very hard on is, how can we value women's family service? Right now, you might as well say that women are penalized for child care and elder care." In calculating Social Security benefits currently, you can take your five lowest earning years out of the ledger. "That does not do enough for the typical female life with its years of wage sacrifice to caregiving," Smeal says. The task force found a useful precedent in World War II and the Korean War when men were able to drop off the years of low military earnings. "We propose a family service drop-out of two years per biological child." This would get rid of four zeros. In addition, the task force proposes a family service credit of $5,000 per year for up to 10 years for the family's lower-earner with children under 6 years old. "That's half the minimum wage," Smeal says, "but at least we don't have zeros." These lost years of income because of caretaking reduce many women's Social Security benefit by so much that they do better selecting 50 percent of their husbands' Social Security income as their benefit.

The task force also proposes that divorced women receive 75 percent of their former spouse's benefit. "You are saying now that somehow she can live on 50 percent. But there's no breaks in bread, no breaks in rent because you are an elderly woman," she says. The task force is also recommending that widows' benefits be raised to 75 percent of the joint benefit.

"We proposed a significant number of meaningful changes that would affect many women, but we're talking very little cost," Smeal says. The task force proposes financing some of the costs by removing the cap on how much income can be taxed, which benefits high-earners by giving them higher benefits in return. The task force opposes privatization and individual accounts, but it is endorsing the idea of having the trust fund managers invest up to 40 percent of the fund into stocks.

Smeal and other participants at the meeting were impressed by the degree of consensus and the desire to work together, something that has not always been a hallmark among women's organizations. Social Security reform is one of the biggest issues facing the women's movement and probably the most complex it has ever tackled. It affects every family and 40 percent of the federal budget. "We wanted to agree on a package that would bring us together in a large coalition," Smeal says. "I felt it was an historic meeting. We took pictures, which we never do." Elderly women, she notes, vote at a much higher rate than elderly men, and with an election year coming up, the National Coalition of Women's Organizations is going to make sure that women's voices are heard on Social Security.

Joan Entmacher, director of family economic security at the National Women's Law center, says the task force has been guided by the art of the possible and has targeted reforms to the most needy. "In the short term, that's where we are most likely to see some action.

"The energy and money that has been poured into efforts to convince people to do away with it and replace it with individual accounts really mobilized a lot of groups to look at the issue," she says. "There really is an extraordinary threat to this crucial program we've all been assuming will be there. Groups who have an enormous stake in this program which serves them very well had better get moving."

The next stage will be drafting and launching the package of proposals to the groups' membership, then to Congress and the public. Social Security is boring and difficult to understand, but with reforms in the air, this is the time for women to understand the provisions that affect them differently from men and to use the reform climate to ensure they get their fair share of benefits.