Congressional Democrats want to change Social Security to address problems faced by older single women, who are disproportionately impoverished in retirement.
Under a proposal from Washington Sen. Patty Murray released Tuesday, unmarried, divorced and widowed Americans would get bigger Social Security checks, while those who were previously married would be able to access a percentage of their ex-spouses’ benefits. (Under current law, those married for less than a decade are ineligible for their spouses’ benefits.)
“Over the past several decades, the workforce has changed, families have changed, and our economy has changed, but in some important ways, Social Security hasn’t kept up,” Murray told TIME.
The increases in Social Security checks in the bill, called the Raise Act, would be paid for with a 2% payroll tax on income above $400,000.
The bill isn’t likely to make it far in the Republican-controlled Senate, much less the GOP-led House of Representatives, but coming from a senior Democratic figure, it helps define that party’s talking points as the 2016 presidential campaign gets underway and lawmakers grapple with how to deal with changing demographics.
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One major issue is that when Social Security first became law, in 1935, most women married and worked as caretakers and homemakers, and relied on their husbands’ pensions and Social Security checks in retirement. As marriage rates have declined and divorce rates increased among certain groups, and private pensions have gone the way of the Model T, roughly three in ten women now find themselves relying entirely on their own Social Security checks—accrued from their own time in the workforce—during retirement.
Since women tend to work lower-paid jobs without employer-backed retirement funds, and to spend more time hopping in and out of the workforce to take care of children and ailing parents, they usually contribute less to their Social Security. As a result, almost 11% of women 65 and older live below the poverty rate; for African American and Hispanic women, the poverty rates are almost double that. Murray’s bill would therefore disproportionately benefit women at the bottom of the income ladder.
At a Democratic presidential debate in October, frontrunner Hillary Clinton pointed specifically at this problem. “We have a lot of women on Social Security, particularly widowed and single women who didn’t make a lot of money during their careers,” Clinton said. “They are impoverished, and they need more help from the Social Security system.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has also proposed sweeping reforms to the system, including creating a “caregiver credit” that would allow those who work full-time taking care of children, elderly parents, and other dependents to bank Social Security for that work. Earlier this year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced legislation that would increase the average recipient’s Social Security check by about $65 a month, by ratcheting up the amount that the top 1.5% of wage earners contributed to the fund.
Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidates have largely focused largely on the program’s budget problems.
Given current budget projections, the Baby Boomer generation now easing into retirement may very well bankrupt the fund within the next two decades. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all advanced plans to privatize Social Security, raise the retirement age and impose what’s known as means-testing, so that those with higher incomes in retirement would receive smaller payouts.
Last month, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump put forward a different idea. In an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes last month, he was opposed to raising the retirement age or changing the existing system. Instead, he advocated for eliminating all foreign aid that is sent “to other countries that want to kill us” and using the money instead to increase Social Security.
For now, it’s unclear how this debate will end, or when. But the contours of the argument are becoming clear.