Congress

Fla. lawmaker looks to ease Social Security penalty for stay-at-home moms

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla. House of Representatives

While Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders advocate equal pay for women, a second-term member of the House of Representatives from South Florida is focused on helping them get higher Social Security benefits when they retire.

Legislation introduced Wednesday by Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Jupiter, would change how the government calculates Social Security payments.

Under current law and regulations, the Social Security Administration pays retirees based on their average wages during the 35 years in which their income was highest.

Since many women interrupt high-paid work years to care for their children at home, the Social Security Administration must find those missing years elsewhere in order to reach the 35-year threshold, and they often are tied to part-time jobs or lower-paying work. The result is smaller earnings during those years, which means lower Social Security payments.

“There’s a lot of talk about pay parity between men and women,” Murphy told McClatchy. “But there’s also the question of Social Security retirement parity. Women should not be punished for raising their kids.”

Women should not be punished for raising their kids.

Rep. Patrick Murphy, Jupiter Democrat

Murphy’s bill would allow a parent to exclude up to five years of lower income from Social Security calculations.

While the congressman said mothers and fathers could benefit from his measure, he noted that the vast majority of stay-at-home parents are female.

Many mothers, Murphy said, face a choice between keeping jobs that pay $35,000 a year or placing their children in day care centers whose cost eats into those earnings.

Murphy, who is challenging Marco Rubio this year for the Senate seat held by the Republican presidential candidate, said his legislation not only would pay for itself but also would extend the long-term solvency of Social Security by bringing more money into the fund from well-off taxpayers.

The measure would raise the $118,500 annual income cap at which Social Security taxes stop being collected from wages. Under Murphy’s bill, the cap would increase at a faster clip than its current inflation-tied rate, bringing in more money for the retirement program.

While campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent weeks, Rubio often noted that his mother receives both Social Security and Medicare.

“Let me just say straight out that I am against any changes to Social Security or Medicare that are bad for my mom,” he quipped last week.

Rubio, however, warns that “your next president better be someone that’s honest with you” and says both entitlement programs will have to be changed in order to survive.

Rubio’s Social Security plan features reforms that have a cutoff age shielding retirees or those nearing retirements from cuts. He would gradually boost the minimum retirement age to reflect longer life expectancy, reduce future benefits for high-income recipients and increase payments to low-income seniors.

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30 The percentage of women 65 or older who depend exclusively on Social Security payments for their support.

The Social Security Fund is estimated to go into the red, with its payment obligations greater than its intake, in 2035. Murphy said his legislation would extend the program’s life for another six years at least.

“With this, you’d be adding years of life to the fund while helping folks who are caretakers of their kids,” he said.

Social Security Works, a Washington-based advocacy group devoted to strengthening the Depression-era entitlement program for the elderly, endorsed Murphy’s bill.

“In response to the nation’s looming retirement-income crisis, a growing number of policymakers are recognizing that we should be expanding, not cutting, Social Security,” said Nancy Altman, the organization’s head. “We applaud Rep. Murphy for his legislation to improve the Social Security benefits of workers who take time out of the workforce for the important job of childcare.”

The pay gap between men and women doing the same job narrowed from 59 cents on the dollar in the 1960s to 79 cents in the 1990s, but it has failed to close.

Because of the pay gap and the fact that far more women stay home to care for children than men do, the average annual Social Security benefit for women 65 or older is $13,500, compared with $17,600 for men the same age, according to the Social Security Administration.

Social Security benefits are the only source of income for 3 in 10 women 65 or older, while just 2 in 10 men depend on them exclusively.

In the same age group, almost 2.9 million women lived in poverty in 2013, more than twice as many as the 1.3 million impoverished men.

Women’s pay has been a recurring theme in the White House campaign debates between Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, and Clinton, a former secretary of state, with both calling for the same wages for the same jobs.

But they’ve split on Social Security benefits, with Sanders urging that the benefits be expanded for all retirees while Clinton has stopped short of supporting that on the grounds that it is fiscally questionable. She has, however, championed increased benefits for “the poorest recipients of Social Security.”

“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 during an Oct. 13 debate.

Even before he launched his presidential bid last year, Sanders introduced legislation to expand Social Security benefits across the board and pay for them by significantly raising the cap on earnings subject to payroll taxes.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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