When Martha Messenger of Danville, Ill., suddenly lost her job at the age of 59 she received no severance pay, unemployment compensation or pension, even though she had worked hard for 40 years. Messenger lost her position - homemaker - when her husband asked for a divorce.
Messenger is one of millions of "displaced homemakers" thrust into the job market through divorce or death of a husband.
These women, often ill-prepared to enter the job market but in serious need of income, have been largely ignored by the women's movement, legislation and job placement programs, said state and national legislators, officials and eductors yesterday. They endorsed a bill introduced by Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and 18 co-sponsors that would authorize $10 million during the next fiscal year to help states establish 50 service centers to provide job trainging, and employment, legal and financial counselling for homemakers - "displaced" in their middle years through divorce or widowhood.
"Many recent widows and divorcess could be tered the 'new poor,' said Illinois state Rep. Susan Catania, citing the example of Messenger Catania testified before the Senate Human Resources Subcommittee on employment Poverty and Migratory Labor.
"Only about one divorcee in every seven is awarded ahmony and less than ine in two is granted financial support for the children. Many widows find the pension that the pension they expert to receive from their husbands' companies are a myth. Often if a husband dies before retirement, the wife is not eligible for a survivor's pension."
Bayth said one widespread myth is that all widows are financially protected at the death of their husbands by Social Security. To be eligible for Social Security a widow must be 60 years old. And if a woman is divorced before she has been married 20 years, she cannot receive dependent benefits underr her former husband's Social Security.
Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis), chairman of the Human Resources subcommittee, stated that there were no accurate estimates of the number of displaced homemakers because "no accounting has ever been made of this segment of society."
Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) said it is "several million and growing. There were 10 million widows in 1975 - a 45 per cent increase since 1950 - and 4 million divorcees - a 223 per cent increase since 1950. Over the past decade, single-parent families headed by a women have grown 10 times as fast as two-parent families.
Homemakers who have spent years at unpaid jobs as wives and mothers face sex and age discrimination, emotional traumas and uncertainty when they must look for jobs, several witnesses testified at yesterday's hearing.
They are ineligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) the major welfare program, if their children are over 18. They are ineligible for unemployment insurance because they have not paid for their jobs at home. Many lose medical coverage and are not accepted in private health insurance plants, said Catania.
Thirteen states passed bills that would help women who have never before been in the job market to find work, but state Sen. Jo Ann Maxey of Nebraska and Catania said they need federal assistance to continue and expand the programs.