What does it mean to be a mom?

This question has as many answers as there are mothers and children. In the universal sense, it has meant, in most cultures and most times, including today, that the buck stops here. Regardless of changing attitudes about men's roles in raising children, and changing roles for women in the workplace, women are still the primary caregivers, both of children and of aging parents.

They are the people who organize their families' lives, right down to pet management; they ensure that we are fed nutritious food and live in a reasonably sanitary home; they cleanse and kiss our wounds, both external and internal; they volunteer in every capacity, supporting such community mainstays as schools, hospitals, churches and family shelters.

In the end, they are also the lowest paid laborers in our, or any other, society - and in America, that also means they are the people who must live on the least when they are older.

Women, in genral, receive lower Social Security benefits than men. In December 1997, the average monthly retired worker benefit for women was $662.40 compared to $860.50 for men.

This is because Social Security benefits are based primarily on a worker's lifetime covered earnings, which on average are much lower for women. They enter the paying workforce later and are paid less, in general.

Although labor market differences between men and women have narrowed over time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not project that they will disappear entirely, even in the long term. Thus, women can expect to continue to receive lower average monthly benefits than men, even when the differences are partially offset by the presence of spousal benefits.

Women are more likely to work part-time, and part-time workers tend to earn lower wages than full-time workers. However, even if only year-round, full-time male and female workers are compared, the median earnings for women are still less than 75 percent of men's. The gap narrows when differences in education, years of work experience, age, and other relevant factors are taken into account.

So, yet another element of what it means to be a mom is that she has a poverty-stricken future ahead of her, unless she has had the means to make up for lost time. If she is fortunate enough to land a second career - after raising her children - that pays well, she has a chance. If she inherits money or real estate and marshals her resources carefully, she has a chance. If her children are well-off enough to help her, she won't starve.

But what about the woman who doesn't enjoy those advantages? What about the woman who was forced onto welfare for her children's early years because she lost, or was left by, her husband? What of the woman whose job options are limited by education and experience? For such women, plans like Bush's SSA savings accounts would be worse than useless.

The implications, by now, are not lost on you.

The contributions of society's most vital family and community mainstays remain as unrecognized by our old age safety net as if they had never existed at all.

Social security reform must include a way to provide fairly for women, as well as for men.

The people who fed and loved us when we were helpless deserve better than dog food in their old age.

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