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Aging Women in an Age of National Selfishness

March 28, 1985|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — The title of her keynote talk before the Western Gerontological Society's 31st annual meeting here was "Power and Justice for Older Women: The Feminization of Poverty," but Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) addressed what she views as an alarming new mind-set in America: selfishness.

"America has always stood up for what was right, for helping people in need as we would help members of our family," Schroeder said. "We see now a new mind-set. We are not a family anymore but a team. You only worry about your team. And if you only pick millionaires on your team, you don't have to worry.

"If we stand for a celebration of selfishness in this country, that is wrong," Schroeder said. She added that justice involves positive action, not merely an absence of injustice.

"We have hard work ahead of us to provide justice and power for the elderly," she said. "We have more people living in poverty--more children than at any time since 1964, and more older people."

Actor-producer-director John Houseman, in concluding the five-day meeting with a talk on "Current Trends in the Mass Media: Their Impact on Power and Justice for Older Americans," noted that "we have created an enormous and quite different problem: longevity." Indeed, it was America's increasing longevity--and the problems that arise from it--that was the essence of the conference.

Schroeder, a member of the House Judiciary and Armed Forces committees and co-chair of the congressional caucus on women's issues, expressed a special concern for older women.

"In the age group over 65, 60% are women," she said. "Of elderly unmarried women--widowed, divorced or never married--25% are below the poverty line. Another 25% are just about at the poverty line.

"We were a society that said, 'Stay home, raise your children, take care of your family.' Now we say, 'The joke's on you. You have no pension. Go figure it out yourself.'

"A very large percentage of America's women are one man (a husband) away from poverty."

Schroeder spoke of "a Norman Rockwell view" of the American family: two children, a father who is the wage earner and a mother who is a homemaker.

Fading of Extended Family

"That is 17% of America's families today," she said. "We also still operate on the basis of the extended family. It just doesn't happen that way anymore."

She told of an informal poll that her then-8-year-old daughter took of her classmates. It indicated that "when somebody said 'grandparents,' they thought of an airplane" that would take them to visit.

Schroeder added that the law has not kept pace with the changes in our society, giving as an example the matter of grandparents' visitation rights in cases of divorce.

Women are also especially affected by two other kinds of discrimination--educational and age, she said.

"A study of middle-aged women found that 25% of women between 45 and 54 had not completed high school," she said. "We (the nation) told them that if they got married and had children we'd take care of them. If they go back to the workplace now, lots of luck.

"And for women over 65, half have not finished high school.

Double Standard

"Age discrimination is rampant among women. Men age but women rot. People say, 'Dye your hair' or, 'It's nice you've kept your figure' or, 'Now that you're past 25 it's nice of your husband to hang in there with you' or, 'When is he going to trade you in for two 20s?' They don't say things like that to men. . . .

"Age discrimination is serious when women apply for an apprenticeship, scholarships, fellowships, on-the-job training. Women are told they are too old.

"There also is the matter of pension inequalities. The jobs women do are pink-collar jobs that don't have fringe benefits, the No. 1 of which is a pension."

Schroeder, a prime mover in pension reform legislation passed by Congress last year, called for Social Security reforms that would benefit women, who "still put much more money in than they get out." The reason, she said, is that women contribute to Social Security but usually take a share of the husband's contributions since the amount is generally larger. In the process they forfeit their own contributions to Social Security.

Cut in Legal Aid Funds

The congresswoman also spoke of cuts in funds for legal aid, an area that especially affects women.

"Legal aid has been zeroed out. How can you have justice if you can't afford to go to court?" she said. "Eighty percent of legal aid users are women--women with children, women heads of household, older women."

Schroeder referred to the current budget debate in Congress as "a very tough thing," then said:

"Let's put Social Security aside because that is separate (from the rest of the national budget). Of all the other revenue we will receive, 83% to 87%--estimates vary--already is committed to just two things: defense and interest on the national debt.

"The money has been squeezed out. We used to speak of guns and butter. Now there is no butter left."

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