WINDHAM — Social Security was signed into law more than 80 years ago on Aug. 14, and, as we celebrate its 81st birthday, it is important to consider how crucial this program is to all Mainers, particularly to Maine women.

At the time of Social Security’s passage in 1935, almost half of older Americans lived in poverty. First simply a retirement program, today Social Security offers survivors’ benefits, benefits to a retiree’s spouse and disability benefits. Social Security is the foundation of economic security for millions of Americans and their families.

Here in Maine, one-third of Mainers 65 or over who are on Social Security rely on their benefit for 100 percent of their income. Without Social Security, more than 80,000 older Mainers would fall into poverty.

For many older Americans, Social Security provides an important protection against economic insecurity. Women make up the majority of adult beneficiaries, collecting Social Security as retired or disabled workers, wives and widows. Since women are more likely than men to take time out of the workforce to care for children and ailing parents, their economic security can be quite uncertain.

Eight years ago, I stopped working full-time to care for my parents, who moved into my home when my mother, then 85, could no longer care for my Alzheimer’s disease-stricken father. Although I gladly took on my role as a caregiver, I had worked hard to earn my doctorate and was saddened to put my career on hold. I didn’t realize then the long-term financial toll my time out of the workforce would take – and it seems that I am not alone.

According to a report issued by the AARP Public Policy Institute, 65 percent of caregivers in America are women. As a result, it is estimated that women have 12 fewer years in the paid workforce over their lifetimes than men do.

The time out of the workforce not only lowers women’s lifetime earnings and savings, but also lowers their ultimate Social Security and retirement benefits. Nationally, it costs the average woman more than $324,000 in lifetime wages and benefits to care for an aging parent. The subsequent loss to their retirement savings substantially increases women’s risk of long-term economic insecurity.

Maine is home to more than 178,000 unpaid family caregivers. This means that approximately 116,000 women in our state are likely losing wages, benefits and retirement security as they care for their loved ones.

Another challenge for women is that they are typically paid less than their male counterparts. In 2012, in all occupations, women were paid 19 percent less than men. It is hard to believe that in 21st-century America, women still earn almost one-fifth less than men in the same job. Additionally, compared to employed men, employed women are more likely to work part-time and less likely to have access to a pension plan.

These are just some of the reasons why women aged 65 and older depend on Social Security for a larger share of their retirement income and are more likely to live in poverty in old age. In 2014, according to the AARP report, 24 percent of women in this age group relied on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their family income, compared to 18.5 percent of older men. Add to this the fact that women live longer on average than men, and it becomes easy to see why Social Security is of paramount importance, particularly for women.

As we approach election season, Social Security’s future must be a focal point of the presidential candidates’ policy plans. It is time for both major-party candidates to lead on Social Security, and give us real answers about how they’ll keep it strong for us and for future generations.

While we can find information about the current plans at 2016takeastand.org, we deserve to know much more about how their plan will affect our families, what it will cost and how they will effectively implement it.

For those, like me, who have had to take time out of the workforce because of caregiving, making our voices heard is critical. When one considers the challenging economic climate of the last few years, strengthening Social Security now and for the future has never been more important.

— Special to the Press Herald