Caregiver Support Bills: Protecting Social Security Benefits for Those who Leave Work to care for parents, children, Relatives
Over the last few years there have been several bills that would expand or improve social security benefits. We believe this is important because Social Security is the most secure retirement income vehicle we have, and for the majority of retirees it is their primary or only source. Some of these bills have been broadly designed to close the Social Security funding gap while addressing inadequacies in the benefit structure while others are focused on specific issues, like the lack of credit given to family caregivers.
These are people who take months or years out of the workforce to provide unpaid care to their parents, children or other relatives. For a variety of reasons, those workers have traditionally been women (though that trend is beginning to show signs of change). By staying out of the work force for a few years to take care of kids early in their careers or doing it (again) later in their careers, women’s social security benefits are disadvantaged in several ways. First, leaving the work force for any period of time can impact the trajectory of your career. In fact, this pattern of leaving the workforce and being the one primarily responsible for childcare is often cited as one non-discriminatory reason that women earn less than men. By working for lower wages, women earn less in Social Security benefits.
So, people (primarily women) are likely to see reduced benefits—and this is a population that is already likely to live longer and have lower benefits anyway! That’s one reason to find a way to give people some Social Security credit for the years they are out of the workforce. Another reason is this: as a country we want—we need—to encourage family caregiving. As many of you know, as well as I, we do not have much of a long-term care system in this country. Families with a relative who needs help with daily activities have limited options. Most Americans do not have long term disability insurance, and it can be very difficult to afford it. Medicare doesn’t cover most long-term care expenses in a home or a facility.
For many families, the most cost effective—or only—option is for someone to take off from work to care for their parent. According to AARP’s public policy institute, family caregivers provide nearly half of a trillion dollars in care each year. Though they are generally not paid, they are working, and they are providing a service both to their families and the country as a whole.
Therefore, we should find a way to prevent this critically important caregiving role from diminishing the retirement security of caregivers. Americans overwhelmingly support the idea of a Social Security caregiver credit (click here to read more about it). The caregiver credit proposals in Congress (notably those from Senator Chris Murphy and Representative Nita Lowey) include giving credit for months out of the work force, based on a formula as if the person had earned a wage (generally a percent of the average wage). There are also bills emerging this year that would do the same, but only for parental caregiving for children, which is good, but not good enough. This would certainly not replace earnings credit an average or high wage worker would have achieved back in the work force, but it can at least prevent those $0 years from slashing benefits in a “high 35” formula.
B’nai B’rith International is very pleased to see these bills as part of the conversation in Congress, even though 2016 might not be the most productive legislative year, given all attention being focused on elections. As a nation we depend on family caregivers, and the least we can do is help make sure that the men and women who perform this service are protected in retirement.
Photos via Flickr (1) (2)
Rachel Goldberg, Ph.D has been the B’nai B’rith International director of health and aging policy since 2003 and the deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Senior Services since 2007. Before joining B'nai B'rith International, she taught politics and government at the University of Puget Sound and Georgetown University. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
Last week the mid-Atlantic region experienced a storm so bad it qualified as a blizzard. It even got a weather service name and a twitter hashtag (#snowzilla). As with every big snow, the region’s roads were impassable and cities became paralyzed. For those in the Midwest and New England, the pre-storm shopping hysteria, the weeklong school closings, the government closings have made Washington, Baltimore and other cities an object of ridicule, and frankly we see your point. We get it. When St. Paul gets this much snow they call the storm “just another Tuesday.”
So our snow removal has been painfully slow. The blizzard conditions started late Friday, Jan. 22 and ended on Sunday, Jan. 24, but my own street didn’t see the shadow of a plow until late Monday, Jan. 25, and our street is barely passable. Friends have been posting and tweeting appalling pictures of impassable streets and sidewalks for days. Nearby, major roads are often plowed, but are down from three lanes to two. And everyone complains: why didn’t they plow ALL the lanes? And that’s where things get interesting.
Often they haven’t plowed all the lanes because if they did they would have to shove that last lane’s snow right up onto the sidewalk, making pedestrian travel difficult, dangerous or downright impossible. And who travels on the sidewalks after a snowstorm? Kids (which is why schools are closed when your street is already clear), people with disabilities and many elderly and low-income people who don’t have or use cars.
While we all seem fairly aware of the roads being critical to our everyday city and community life, it’s easy to forget the role sidewalks play until they are covered by a 6 foot snow pile left by a plow. Sidewalks are a critical part of the transportation infrastructure, especially for low-income people and people with disabilities and mobility impairments, categories that include millions of older adults.
This even helps to keep snow removal in mind in long term urban planning (like making sure there is space between the sidewalk and the road for that snow to get shoved). The issue is on the table in many communities, including mine. In Montgomery County, Maryland (where I live), the county almost got a pedestrian friendly plan that would have increased the county’s obligation to remove snow from pedestrian pathways, but it was never signed by a county executive. Montgomery County also has an advisory committee that recently did a pedestrian “walk about” tour of the area and developed more pedestrian friendly guidelines that you can read about here.
Other groups including disability groups have developed excellent resources, like Easter Seals’ Project Action, where I found a guide on pedestrian/disability friendly snow removal policies and planning.
The federal government has money (called Section 5310) allocated to efforts on disability transportation, including pedestrians. While I would like to say that includes a resource listing the right phone numbers to call for every city or county when you see an impediment to pedestrian travel or a mobility challenge, it doesn’t mean that. We do have regional contacts and state contacts listed together and the National Center for Mobility Management, and that gets you off to a good start. You can find other related resources on their main page. The Federal emphasis on transportation planning for people with mobility challenges has produced some excellent planning tools and raised awareness about best practices.
So how are we doing at actually implementing pedestrian/aging/disability friendly transportation plans? Not great. It has been clear during this week’s “snowzilla” how much tension remains between the need to plow roads and the need to maintain sidewalks. And the sidewalks often lose. We’ve seen pedestrian access to public transportation (Metro) limited because the parking lot’s snow got dumped on the sidewalks leading to the stations. In my neighborhood—already a hot spot for pedestrians being struck by cars—bus stops have been obliterated, the bus shelters are half filled with snow and often there is nowhere for riders to stand but in the slick, snow-banked roadways. So far no pedestrians have been injured in my neighborhood, but I am frankly almost as surprised as I am relieved.
But advocates know it takes more than having information about how best to do things to get them actually done. I guess we all know that.
So what do we do? Three things come to mind. First, do your part. Shovel your sidewalk as soon as you can after a storm. It’s required by law most places, and is neighborly. If you can’t shovel, ask a neighbor to help. If you can, shovel for the neighbor you know can’t. Local governments often need to do more to make sure that commercial and public areas (where no homeowner is responsible) are also plowed. In good weather, don’t block sidewalk access with a vehicle, trash can, etc., especially the curb cuts designed to let wheelchairs ease from sidewalk to street. As a driver remember that pedestrians have rights, and are easy to injure. Remember that not all pedestrians are STANDING, and some may be seated and harder to see. Be aware.
Second, if you see something wrong, tell someone. If the sidewalk is blocked, report it. If stores plowed snow into the handicapped spots, tweet about it. If you see people walking on a snowy roadway because there is no sidewalk to be found, call your city or county.
And third, after you figure out how to report these problems, think about getting more involved. Ask how you can become part of an advisory committee on transportation issues. Transportation planning is a big deal for most states and municipalities, and advocates for the elderly and disabled have made it a particular point to make sure those concerns are part of all planning, whether it’s public transportation, new road designs or services especially for the disabled. And there is plenty of information available about how planning can be done to accommodate the needs of people with mobility challenges—and how to keep the snow from trapping them at home or making them unsafe when they are out.
Last year we participated in the once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging, and the final report calls for more planning and coordination on transportation issues. Cities, states and the federal government are always planning transportation initiatives, from maintaining what exists to expanding mass transit and building new highways. All that planning needs to take into account the needs of people with mobility challenges. It was great to hear last year about the $2.5 million allocated for a plan to launch the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center at the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will “provide technical assistance to improve the availability and accessibility of transportation options that serve the needs of people with disabilities, seniors, and caregivers.”
But the kind of planning—and frankly pressure—required to make sure seniors, the disabled and pedestrians are not left out of the future of our roads and bridges requires us to get involved. There are so many issues at play, and so many future consequences of today’s decisions, that we have to make sure we represent these issues at the table. If you want to learn more about volunteering your insights, start at the National Center for Disability Management. Or call a disability rights group. Or call us—we’ll help you find the right access point for wherever you live.
Even those of us who don’t have any mobility challenges (yet) are sometimes pedestrians. It can be complicated to sort out how to support growth and safety, roads and sidewalks.
And, if you see a sidewalk covered in a snow mountain made by a snow plow, take a picture and send it to us.
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