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Larry Kotlikoff

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Kotlikoff: How Social Security Rules Punish Women

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Social Security rules for married people aren’t just complex and opaque. They’re sexist. What’s more, they’re based on the “sexual possession [of females] by males,” Laurence Kotlikoff, economics professor at Boston University, argues in a ThinkAdvisor interview.

The goal is “to keep women as chattel,” says Kotlikoff, recognized by The Economist as one of the world’s 25 most influential economists.

“There’s some underlying obsession about making sure that the woman is property and when she marries you, she’s yours forever,” he maintains in the interview.

Women are the major recipients of child-in-care spousal benefits, spousal benefits, divorcee spousal benefits, widow benefits and divorcee widow’s benefits, but because they earn less than men, the rules — which apply to both genders — are more likely to wreak financial damage on women, Kotlikoff insists.

He has even drawn up a list of what he considers 20 sexist Social Security rules and provisions. In the interview, he discusses some of them.

Many of the rules aim to control women by “keeping [them] at home and not out working, as a way to keep the wife from having contact with other males,” Kotlikoff contends.

Indeed, the professor is calling for a congressional commission “to investigate the sexist nature of the Social Security program.

“The whole thing needs to be restructured so that each spouse has their own account and the records are split 50/50 between them,” he proposes.

Kotlikoff likes to write about and call attention to outlandish Social Security rules and inequitable cases in hopes that the administration will make needed corrections.

The bestselling author’s newest book is “Money Magic: An Economist’s Secrets to More Money, Less Risk and a Better Life.”

Kotlikoff is the founder and president of financial planning software firm Economic Security Planning, offering the online tools Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi, which calculate claiming strategies.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Kotlikoff, who was speaking by phone from the Boston area.

Among other pointed — or shall we say blunt — comments, he maintains: “The government set up this system to help men bribe women, in effect, [and] to bid for chattel women.”

Here are highlights of the interview:

THINKADVISOR: One doesn’t usually associate Social Security benefits with sexism. Please explain why you do.

LAURENCE KOTLIKOFF: This is not just about sexism, per se. This is about sex. The rules are about keeping your woman … as your chattel, penalizing her for running off with someone else.

The system is sexist, and the sexism is based not just on misogyny but also on sexual possession by males. … It’s trying to keep women as chattel and controlling their bodies more than it is antagonism toward females.

This is shocking!

I think there are deep sociological factors going on here. There’s some underlying obsession about making sure that the woman is property and that when she marries you, she’s yours forever and doesn’t have sex with anybody else.

Keeping her at home and not working is a way to keep her out of contact with other males.

Is that why the Social Security Administration tells women “You have to be married to a guy for 10 years before you can divorce him and get Social Security divorce benefits or divorcees’ widows’ benefits?”

It’s so that the wife doesn’t sleep with somebody else. The irony is that she could be sleeping with somebody else for the entire marriage, and the spouses could even be separated physically, but she could still qualify [for the benefits].

This is a way to keep the woman at home and have her available and unable to meet somebody else and run off.

So [the administration has] controlled the female to the extent that they could: “Let’s penalize her some other way.”

Are these rules just for women?

No. They’re for both men and women — symmetric — but because women are lower earners, the effect is asymmetric. Women that have babies and bring them up are going to be especially lower earners.

What can be done to make the system fair to women?

There needs to be a congressional commission to investigate the sexist nature of the Social Security program.

The whole thing needs to be restructured so that each spouse has their own account, and we get rid of dependent benefits. Everybody should be treated as if they earn half the money so that the records are split 50/50 between the spouses.

Please explain how these inequitable rules came to be.

Old white guys made the rules in the 50s, 60s and 70s. They’re so opaque that at least half the public would be surprised at every single one of them.

The way these guys set it up is that, if the wife gets divorced after five years of marriage — a woman who stayed home and watched the kids while the husband went off and had a serious career — they were allowing the husband to wreak [financial] revenge, in effect, on his ex-wife, penalizing her for getting divorced so she doesn’t run off with somebody else.

The men were trying to trap her into not getting divorced by setting up a divorce penalty and keeping her from getting married [again] before age 60. If she does, she can’t collect on her ex’s earnings record even though she might have supported him through grad school or law school, and he had a career. She took care of the house and kids so he had time to earn a significant living.

The fact that you can’t marry again before age 60 before you can collect widow’s benefits from an ex is extremely sexist.

After all these years, has Social Security tried to change these sexist rules?

I haven’t seen them bending over backward to be equitable to women. I’ve never seen anyone [in the Social Security Administration] take steps to try to raise objections or concerns. They approved of them implicitly.

They were old white guys who thought every single word in the system was perfect. Nobody would come out publicly and say, “This system has problems” or “This system is really broken [and going broke].”

What are some other examples of these sexist rules?

Wives A and B both have high-earning husbands, making the same amount. Wife A doesn’t work a day in her life and pays not a penny in Social Security taxes. Wife B works every day and pays 12.4% of every dollar she earns to Social Security.

Wife A and Wife B can collect exactly the same benefits; that is, Wife B may get absolutely nothing back for paying all those FICA taxes month after month.

What’s another?

If you’re a high-earning woman and take time off to have children, the years of zero earnings won’t be filled in with earnings above the taxable ceiling arising in the years you earn above the ceiling.

That means that only the money up to the ceiling is included in the formula for your benefits.

What are more sexist rules?

An ex-husband that has children with a new wife will reduce the child benefits available to children from prior wives.

Husbands can get their new wives spousal benefits after being married for only one year; husbands can get their new wives widow benefits after being married for just nine months.

But you said they want to keep their wives as chattel?

It goes like this: The old wife has left. They want to make sure they can bribe the new one. They want to get a new woman, and this is one way to do it.

They say, “Marry me. I’m 65. Within a year, you’ll qualify for my very high spousal benefits that I can provide you.”

Let’s say he’s 58, and the woman is 45. She doesn’t have that much of an earnings record. So the guy says: “I’ve got this very high earnings record. If you marry me, you’re going to get a decent-sized spousal benefit. When I die, you’ll get my entire check.”

Wow, how romantic.

Exactly! This is how people buy their way to a relationship. The government set up this system to help men bribe women, in effect, [and] to bid for chattel women.

It’s a form of putting up a bid if you’ve lost your wife because she’s died or run off. I don’t know how the system could be more sexist.