A recent survey by the Census Bureau and the Conference Board brought the good news that a fourth of all elderly households have enough income for "luxury items." The bad news, however, followed close behind in the form of letters to the editor of The Washington Post by two persons who have credentials to speak to the point.
"If, as the article states, 26.9 percent of those over 65 have money for luxuries, 73.1 percent do not," wrote Sandra Porter, executive director of the National Commission on Working Women. "While it might comfort us to think that the elderly live as retired-husband-and-wife-in-a-Florida-condo, it just isn't so. Twenty-two per cent of the elderly live at or below the poverty line ($4,979 for those over 65), almost as many as those who have luxury incomes. The majority of older women are not married, and over half have incomes of $6,000 or less."
"Clearly the economic condition of older Americans has improved over the last 20 years when one in three older persons lived in poverty," wrote Cyril F. Brickfield, executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons. But, he noted, "The grim reality is that older persons still have the highest poverty rate of any adult age group . . . . A third of all single older women still are in poverty. And the poverty rate for those of advanced age and the minority elderly still exceeds 40 percent."
A lack of pension coverage has contributed greatly to the impoverishment of many elderly people, particularly elderly women. The Older Women's League long ago recognized the connection between pension laws designed around the working patterns of men and their failure to provide adequate coverage for elderly working women and surviving spouses. OWL lobbied for changes in pension laws during the last session of Congress. As part of a new effort to secure further changes, it has launched a National Pension Literacy Program funded by the Ford Foundation.
This includes publication of a pension tabloid to help demystify pensions and explain basic plans, various aspects of coverage and some important pitfalls that both men and women should be aware of.
"Currently, only one woman in five receives any type of pension, private or public, to supplement her Social Security payments," writes Victoria Jaycox, executive director of OWL in the pension tabloid. "The median income for women from pensions last year was $233 per month, about half of what men receive, and only half as many women as men received pensions, whether as retired workers or as spouses of retired workers.
"Women are at a disadvantage because of their work patterns. They are more heavily concentrated in low-paying jobs, they change jobs more frequently, and they often take time off from paid employment to care for their children or ill family members. Since pension plans are designed to reward long-term, higher-paid workers, they are more likely to deliver benefits to men whose work patterns conform to their design."
Two bills introduced in Congress this session would lower the minimum number of years a person has to work before becoming covered by a pension plan from 10 to five. The bills would also prohibit employers from integrating pensions and Social Security. Phyllis Borzi, a pension lawyer, a member of OWL's board and counsel for a House subcomittee on labor-management relations, explains how this works: "Your employer uses a mathematical formula to subtract part of your Social Security benefit from your pension benefit . . . . " Thus, a woman earns a monthly pension benefit of $120, and a Social Security benefit of $300. "She thought her monthly income would be $420. But her pension plan calculated her actual pension by subtracting one-third of her Social Security from the earned pension, leaving her with a pension of $20.
"If your small pension is integrated with Social Security, it may be reduced significantly or canceled out altogether," she warns.
The pension tabloid contains a glossary of terms and questions to ask employers. The idea of the pension literacy project is to help people become informed about pensions so they can plan wisely for their retirement. And if they become informed, they can lobby for changes in the laws that now adversely affect workers by allowing companies to offset pension benefits with Social Security benefits. Some progress was made in the last session of Congress toward pension reform, but there is clearly much to be done. Pensions may seem difficult to understand now, but poverty could be infinitely more difficult later on.