Most people think of Social Security as a retirement program, but at age 20, Tyra Brown has already had to rely on it.
When she was 15, her mother died from heart failure. "My grandmother became my guardian and we received Social Security's survivors' benefits to help us with expenses," said Brown.
Brown, who came to the nation's capital from Oklahoma City, her home town, to study at Howard University was among a handful of women who participated in a roundtable discussion at the White House Tuesday with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
The conversation focused on the way the current Social Security system treats American women, as well as obstacles that make it difficult for many to support themselves in retirement. Women in 10 U.S. cities watched the event via satellite.
"For elderly women, Social Security makes up half of their income, and for many it is all that stands between them and the ravages of poverty," Clinton said Tuesday.
Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Fla., is among women Democrats in Congress asking Clinton to speak up for women's interests as he prepares to host a conference on Social Security's future with congressional Republicans at the White House on Dec. 8 and 9.
With the nation's huge baby boom generation nearing retirement, the president and Republican leaders have said they want to take action next year to make sure Social Security won't run short of cash.
"When they're choosing or deciding on which plan of action to take they should always remember the human values our employment status as women, and how we're paid less than men and with our Social Security the difference that makes," Brown said.
Women are particularly dependent on Social Security for retirement money and yet tend to get smaller pension checks from the system because they live longer and have worked less.
Social Security also provides a sort of workers' compensation insurance, sending monthly checks to the families of breadwinners who die before reaching retirement age a benefit that more women than men receive.
While Clinton wasn't expected to endorse any specific changes to Social Security today, he did plan to propose new laws giving women greater access to income from private pension or 401(k) retirement savings plans.
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 also be harder for working women to save for retirement, as they tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs and on average make only around 75 cents for every dollar men make.
One Clinton administration proposal would allow women to count any time they take away from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act toward pension eligibility or vesting ia 401(k) savings plan.
The other would require private pension plans to offer married couples more options to reduce the payments they receive while both are alive, in order to assure the longest surviving spouse most often the woman a larger income later.
By Alice Ann Love