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Women face additional retirement challenges
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


July 09, 2007

One issue has been largely overlooked in the ongoing debate over whether baby boomers and succeeding generations will be able to afford retirement: the challenges women face in saving for and affording retirement.

An initiative funded by the Heinz family money is shedding more light on the issue and trying to equip women to overcome the retirement savings obstacles they face.

Heinz Family Philanthropies and The Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) electronically published "What Women Need to Know About Retirement" last week. The 78-page e-book, available for free at, provides basic information on retirement savings, Medicare, long-term care and related retirement issues. The e-book also includes a glossary that explains financial terms and concepts and contact information for government agencies and other sources.

"The unique retirement problems that women face aren't widely written about," said Jeffrey Lewis, president of the Heinz Family Philanthropies and WISER's chairman. "The objective is to make sure women have just as much information as their (spouses)."

The statistics show why women need that information. Their role as primary caregivers reduces their income dramatically over the course of their working life. That reduces their Social Security benefits as well as pension benefits, if they are fortunate enough to work for an employer who still offers a pension plan. Spending less time on the job and earning less than men also limits what they can contribute to 401(k) and similar retirement savings accounts. The reduced savings and benefits impose financial hardships for women when they retire because they have longer life expectancies than their spouses.

Consider these statistics pulled from WISER publications:

Social Security is the only source of income for 25 percent of unmarried women.

Women spend 27 years in the work force while men work almost 40 years. Yet a woman who reaches 65 can expect to live until 84 or 85, about four years longer than a man.

The median income for retired women was $12,080 in 2004 vs. the $21,102 retired men received.

Fewer than 20 percent of women 65 or older received private pension income in 2000, with a median annual income from pension payments of $4,164, according to the Social Security Administration.

Two of three working women earn less than $30,000 a year in jobs that do not offer pensions. Nearly half of all women work in low-paying jobs without retirement plans.

The e-book is a wake-up call to the estimated 40 million women who will retire over the next two decades. It provides free, basic financial information in one spot, information many women (and men) aren't getting through newspapers, the Internet and other sources.

"It's not just the retirement part of it. It's economic security," said WISER President Cindy Hounsell.

Hounsell, a former Pan Am flight attendant, started learning about retirement security after the airline's pension plan was frozen in the early 1980s.

"I thought, 'Some day I'll pull it out of the freezer when I need it,'" she joked. "I had no idea what that really meant."

Hounsell subsequently earned a law degree from the City University of New York and began working on women's issues in Washington, D.C., where she met Lewis and Teresa Heinz. Her late husband, Sen. John Heinz, was instrumental in passing the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, which requires companies to pay survivor pension benefits to the spouse of a deceased retiree unless the spouse waives the benefit in writing.

WISER, founded in 1996, targets low- and middle-income women, trying to provide them with basic information about the obstacles they face in establishing long-term financial security. WISER also advocates changes that would reshape retirement policies that reflect a bygone age when men were the primary bread winners and more employers offered traditional pension plans. Those changes include finding ways not to penalize women who sacrifice retirement benefits by taking time off to care for children or elderly relatives.

Hounsell says retirement policy cannot be shaped without considering the other financial constraints working women -- and men -- face. Those constraints include finding the money to save for their children's college educations and having to pay more for employer-provided health-care benefits.

"There is nobody looking at all of these pieces together," she said. "If health care were fixed, maybe people would have more money. They could save for retirement."

Lewis said about 10,000 visitors had looked at the e-book since it was posted on WISER's Web site last week, including more than 3,000 visitors who downloaded the report.

But since many of the women WISER is targeting do not have access to a computer, the organization also is trying to find supermarkets, health insurers, labor unions, religious organizations and other groups that will help distribute printed versions of the document.

"We've really developed a strong parallel strategy on the print side of this," he said.


Len Boselovic can be reached at lboselovic(at)
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