By Cameron Fisher
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, particularly the minds of women.
On Thursday, September 24, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing held by senators Susan Collins (R-MA), the chairwoman, and Bob Casey (D-PA), the ranking member. The hearing came six days after the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who fought for women’s rights and made strides toward equal pay, two topics discussed in the hearing.
“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 featured a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the challenges and fears women have as they approach older age and the status of their income security. The report was requested by the committee to gather more information and perspectives, and Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro testified as a witness.
The GAO conducted 14 focus groups which took place before the pandemic and included 190 women who are close to retirement. In many of the groups, the women reported concerns about Medicare, their lack of financial education, and filing for Social Security. Specifically, many women told the GAO they do not know what age to start applying for Social Security.
“My greatest hope is that I won’t outlive my resources,” one focus group participant said.
As cited by the committee on aging, the factors that contribute to the financial insecurities older women face 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 committee agreed they must create legislation which will combat these problems, including creating action that will strengthen Social Security and increase benefits for people who are most likely to fall to poverty. Other plans include securing multi-employer pensions and protecting the benefits which 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 Casey in 2019. The act would expand Social Security benefits for widows and divorced spouses as well as provide Americans flexibility in claiming benefits by fixing outdated restrictions that prevent recipients from maximizing their benefits. If this legislation were in effect today, Casey said more than 1 million people across the country would be receiving increased benefits.
The Senior Security Act cosponsored by Collins is another piece of legislation to assist older people. The act would specifically create a task force focused on protecting seniors from financial crimes and scammers. The taskforce would help fight fraud and financial exploitation targeted at older Americans and help them retire with dignity. Though many Americans have become financially literate enough to recognize the signs of fraud, 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. Before the virus, the GAO reported that seniors lose about $2.9 billion to financial abuse and fraud each year, and so far this year, Americans have lost a reported $145 million in fraud linked to COVID-19.
Collins identified two new coronavirus-related scams during the hearing. In one scam, senior citizens are called and told they have to pay upfront for a COVID test or they are told to pay beforehand for a vaccine that hasn’t even been created yet. In another, scammers rely 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 directly be assisting the family. Many of the seniors called end up donating, however their money does not help a struggling family. The Senior Security Act would execute more cooperation with the Department of Justice as they track down criminals and investigate some of the more complex scams, a force that would have been highly valuable this year.
“Before I took my position as Comptroller General, I had a much higher opinion of human nature than I do now,” said 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.”