- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2000

Saving and strengthening Social Security is a welcome addition to the spectrum of important issues in this year's elections. In particular, it is refreshing to hear a presidential candidate talking about what is really good for women to ensure financial security in their retirement years.

Gov. George W. Bush has outlined a bold framework of principles to keep our commitment to seniors, while strengthening Social Security for the future. Women of all ages will benefit under Gov. Bush's approach and for the first time working women will be able to maximize Social Security dollars for their retirement. It is not difficult to recognize that the needs of women in 1935 when Social Security was created were vastly different from the needs of working women today. As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee which oversees and writes legislation affecting the Social Security system I have studied the issue with a careful eye toward how our retirement security policies impact women.

The reality is that the current system does not provide many of today's working women the opportunity to receive a return on their investment in Social Security taxes. Under the leadership of the next president of the United States, Social Security must be modernized to benefit younger women, while ensuring that every senior who depends on that monthly check continues to receive it.

Keeping the promise of Social Security:

Mr. Bush's approach is to create a bipartisan commission to consider and propose to the Congress a Social Security plan that:

• Preserves Social Security for 75 years.

• Keeps benefits stable for seniors who count on that check.

• Does not increase Social Security taxes.

• And provides for personal accounts for younger workers.

So how would these principles affect women?

Mr. Bush's first principle is to reassure seniors and others approaching retirement that we will guarantee their Social Security benefits so women have peace of mind it will be there for them in retirement. The president and Congress must work cooperatively to ensure that this contract is honored.

Despite much rhetoric, President Clinton avoided engaging in meaningful, bipartisan efforts to shore up Social Security for the future. In contrast, Mr. Bush has made a commitment to lead the dialogue as president by reaching out across party lines to save and strengthen Social Security.

Women are particularly vulnerable to poverty in retirement not only because they live longer than their husbands do 75 percent of the time, but also because they often have fewer financial resources. This is most often due to lower earnings, or extended periods of time out of the work force while raising children. Since the current average monthly benefit still leaves 15 percent of women in poverty, any further reduction in these benefits is unacceptable.

A survey conducted last year by the American Academy of Actuaries found that women have less personal savings than men do and, as a result, they depend more on Social Security in retirement.

As the mother of two sons, I know the last thing a woman wants to be is a burden on her family. Preserving Social Security will help women grow older with the freedom and independence that comes with knowing their income is secure.

Working for more personalized retirement savings accounts: In 1999, the average monthly benefit for a woman on Social Security was $697. While this money is critical to the well-being of retirees and older employees planning for retirement, younger workers are seeking alternatives to provide for themselves and their families. Mr. Bush's approach offers an option for younger Americans who want control over more of their retirement dollars.

Today, 70 percent of mothers with children at home are working earning and contributing at every level of the economy. That's a far cry from the situation 60 years ago when Social Security began most women then did not work outside the home, and 65 was the average lifespan.

Under the current Social Security system, a woman is guaranteed a benefit equal to 50 percent of her husband's benefit regardless of whether she ever worked. The result is that a woman may contribute tens of thousands of dollars in payroll taxes throughout her life only to receive her benefits based on her husband's work. Instead of seeing no added value for her payroll taxes, it would be better for a working woman to keep a portion of those dollars in a personal account.

Personal savings accounts would enable a young woman to accumulate an asset that gives her increased independence both during her career and in retirement. Investing a portion of her Social Security taxes through a responsible management company just as in 401(k) accounts or government thrift savings accounts would result in more independence for women, while creating more dollars for retirement. We would shortchange future generations if we did not give this option serious consideration as part of Social Security reform discussions.

As a public servant, I believe there is no better goal than helping to ensure financial freedom and independence for women in work and retirement.

Perhaps most important, these accounts will enable widows, single mothers and low-income people to create "nest eggs" of their own that not only would make them more secure during retirement, but also would enable them to pass on any remaining savings to their children. As Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, has stated, "Done in the correct way, individual accounts can be enormously progressive and very, very helpful, especially for low-income workers in accumulating their share of the American dream." It is disappointing to hear so many other Democrats, from Vice President Al Gore to Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, respond with a mantra of fear, merely defending the status quo that does not benefit so many women today.

A tremendous opportunity lies before us to elect a president who will lead a national dialogue on Social Security so we can continue to fulfill our commitment to seniors and ensure that no one is left behind. The 2000 elections are about the future and about the ability of Americans to gain more independence and control in providing for themselves and their families while maintaining a safety net for those who need it.

So make no mistake, women will win with George W. Bush's vision for the future of Social Security. It is about personal security, real dollars and good sense.

Jennifer Dunn, a Washington Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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