Spotlight On Social Security

In his radio address to the nation Saturday, President Clinton announced that he would convene a two-day bipartisan conference to focus on problems in the Social Security system that funds the retirement of most Americans.

The Republican response, delivered by New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, also focused on Social Security.

The talks followed postponement of a a White House meeting Friday on the problems that many women face when they retire.

Bernice Meyer, one of the women who was to take part in Friday's meeting, sees obstacles for her and many other American women that will make it difficult to support themselves in retirement.

"Life doesn't always work out that you keep moving up," said Meyer, 49, of Seattle.

The event, however, was postponed until Tuesday so that President Clinton could be at Middle East peace talks being held just outside Washington.

Meyer's current job as a home aide helping elderly and disabled people with daily activities is typical of the community service work to which she has devoted herself: it pays little and offers few benefits. Single all her life, she does not have a husband's pension on which to depend, either.

"So, Social Security is important for me in terms of being my livelihood when I retire," Meyer said.

For a woman, supporting herself in old age can be a greater worry than for a man, simply because women live longer and often have earned less. Women are therefore particularly dependent on Social Security for retirement money, yet tend to get smaller checks from the system because they have worked less.

Democrat women in Congress have asked the president to speak up for women's interests as the nation prepares to consider systemic changes to keep Social Security from running short of cash as baby boomers retire.

Tuesday's roundtable, scheduled close to the congressional elections on Nov. 3, is not expected to include any Republicans. The meeting will be beamed, via satellite, to 10 U.S. cities with audiences of 50 to 100 women were to participate.

"It's to remind all Americans about how important retirement security is for women and in particular about how important Social Security is," said Social Security Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel.

American women are still twice as likely as men to spend at least a decade or more outside the labor force, often caring for children or elderly family members. That may make it harder for them to qualify for or get full benefits from company retirement plans.

It can be harder for working women to save for retirement as well, as they tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs and on average make only around 75 cents for every dollar men do.

Labor Secretary Alexis Herman issued a wake-up call to women, especially baby boomers, Friday morning, urging them to save now for their retirement years.

"You have to know that 75 percent of women only earn $25,000 or less," she told CBS "This Mornng."

"So not only are we still making low wages, but we have to know especially the importance now of saving for our retirement years."

Herman said the government needs to encourage small businesses, where about 12 million women work, to set up pension plans for their workers.

"President Clinton has taken aggressive steps to work more closely with the small business community to strengthen pension coverage," she said.

The third piece to retirement is personal savings, Herman explained. She has been going around the country, urging women - even those young enough to be Girl Scouts - to begin saving for their older years.

"I'm finding that young women, unlike perhaps young women in our generation, they're actually thinking about these issues," Herman said. "They're going to the banks with their parents, they're taking that dollar or quarter from their allowance and they're putting it aside, they're actually talking about the importance of savings and not relying on husbands and not relying on fathers and perhaps recognizing that some of them may not actually marry in their later years."

The White House discussion grew out of town-hall meetings on Social Security's future that the Clinton administration has held this year.

Republican lawmakers participated in each of those events, and President Clinton and Vice President Gore were mostly neutral about possible solutions as they talked about changes needed to keep the nation's retirement system from being overwhelmed by aging baby boomers.