Nearly one-fourth of the nation's elderly women are impoverished or nearly poor, and younger women face a similarly bleak old age despite a surge in recent years in the number who work, according to a report by the Older Women's League.
The national advocacy group's "1995 Mother's Day Report" cites a litany of statistics showing higher rates of poverty among older women than men, especially among older single, divorced or widowed women; and older women of African-American or Hispanic heritage.
For example, men over age 65 in 1993 had a median annual income of $14,983; for older women, median income was $8,499, or just $1,136 above what the U.S. Census Bureau designates as officially poor for single-person households.
The picture behind these Census Bureau statistics, of course, is far more complex than anything graphs and charts can show.
What's created the pension gap is a lifetime of circumstance and choice: Women's traditionally lower wages at any job, work histories interrupted with time off to raise children, and segregation into service-oriented or part-time jobs that offer fewer benefits and lower pay than male-dominated jobs.
Also at work, the group said, is the nation's retirement system and its built-in biases that hurt older women who don't fit the traditional model of a nuclear family.
"Our nation's retirement income systems are unlikely to provide today's young women with any more economic security in old age than their mothers and grandmothers have," the report said.
"The increase in the number of women in the work force is significant," it said, but many young women have adopted the same work patterns that impoverished their mothers and grandmothers.
"A woman's path to poverty starts from the day she goes to work," said Pat Taylor, former president of the Illinois Older Women's League, who presented the report at a Wednesday press conference in Chicago.
The report is intended as both a wake-up call for young women to save more aggressively for their own futures -- because no one else will -- and as a prod for legislative bodies to examine how public and private retirement systems affect women.
"Women live longer than men," Ms. Taylor said. When baby boom women become a significant presence among the elderly around 2020, "you'll see many women living alone. And unless we do something about our policies, we will have a large portion of our older women destitute," she said.
Ms. Taylor referred to the three sources of income that usually make up a well-funded retirement: Social Security, a private or public pension and personal savings.
As a group, older women now are more likely than men to rely on Social Security as a sole source of income. One in five of the 18 million older women who receive Social Security have no other source of income, the group said.