Retirement security concern and the unique challenges facing older women: The Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing

By Cameron Fisher

Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins delivers her opening statement.

To add to the growing list of concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn of retirement security weighs heavily on many Americans’ minds.

On Thursday, September 24, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing called, “Women and Retirement: Unique Challenges and Opportunities to Pave a Brighter Future” which was held by Senators Chairman Susan Collins (R-MA) and Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-PA). In light of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who fought for women’s rights and made strides toward equal pay, the discussion could not have been more timely.  

“In general, women are more likely than men to take time away from the workforce to raise children or even grandchildren,” said Sen. Collins in her opening statement.  “They are more likely to care for an ill spouse or a parent. Time out of the workforce often results in lower Social Security benefits, smaller pensions, and less in defined contribution plan savings. Women also have a higher average life expectancy than men.”

The hearing included a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the challenges and fears women have as they approach older age and their income security. The report was requested by the Aging Committee and featured Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro to testify as witness.

The GAO conducted 14 focus groups which took place before the pandemic and included 190 women in nine different locations. In many of the groups, there were reported concerns about Medicare, their lack of financial education and filing for Social Security, with a lot of the women citing that they do not know what age to start applying for the process.

“My greatest hope is that I won’t outlive my resources,” reported one focus group participant.

As cited by the Aging Committee, the factors that contribute to that all-too real problem is the difference in life expectancy between men and women, the gender pay gap, family caregiving responsibilities and the cost of prescription drugs and other necessities.

The Aging Committee said that they must combat these problems through a few pieces of action, including strengthening Social Security and increasing benefits for people who are most likely to fall to poverty, as well as securing multi-employer pensions and protect the benefits that millions of workers rely on. The Committee also said they must close the pay gap to ensure women are paid equally for equal work, and they must create permanent paid sick and paid family and medical leave.

“Legislation that would address all of these needs has already been introduced, and we should pass that legislation, or several pieces of legislation without further delay,” said Ranking Member Casey. “It’s more important now than ever we take action, because as we speak, millions of families are continuing to struggle through the pandemic and the economic and jobs crisis that was created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The acts that have been introduced include the Surviving Widow(er) Income Fair Treatment (SWIFT) Act that was introduced by Sen. Casey in 2019. The act would expand Social Security benefits for windows and divorced spouses and provide Americans with flexibility in claiming benefits. If this legislation were in effect today, more than 1 million people across the country would be receiving increased benefits.

As well as this, the Senior Security Act cosponsored by Sen. Collins is legislation to create a task force focused on protecting seniors from financial crimes and scammers. The bill would help fight fraud and financial exploitation targeted at older Americans and help them retire with dignity. Many Americans have become literate enough to recognize the signs of fraud, but con artists have become increasingly creative. Especially during emergencies and moments of anxiety, in particular the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a spike in scams and attempts to hack personal information. 

Sen. Collins identified two new coronavirus related scams. One example where senior citizens are called and told they have to pay upfront for a COVID test or are told to pay beforehand for a vaccine that hasn’t even been created yet. The other is more reliant on empathy, where seniors are called and told a story about a family struggling because of the pandemic and if they were to donate, they would be directly assisting the family. Clearly there is no struggling family in question.

“Before I took my position as Comptroller General, I had a much higher opinion of human nature than I do now,” said General Dodaro about the ongoing fraud situation. “They seem to be ever creative, ever evolving their schemes to prey and the elderly are among the most vulnerable people in this area. We have made recommendations to the Justice Department and they have a number of activities underway to improve their efforts.”

The efforts taken by the Committee on Aging reflect opportunity to improve and help the situations of women nationwide who have to take on many roles, from caregiver to employee to mother, and taking into consideration the many complications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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