Her mother, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the hills of Kentucky a century ago, had some words of wisdom for Adna Bert Baldwin: A woman should be independent and have money to pay her own way.
Baldwin, 81, took that advice seriously. She married young, to her high school sweetheart, but followed in her mother’s footsteps, teaching elementary school students not far from Cincinnati for 27 years. The pension she earned when she retired two decades ago left her more secure than was her mother, Adna Burns, who taught in an era when the idea of paid retirement was just emerging for teachers.
For Baldwin, her teacher’s pension affords her a comfortable middle-class life. It’s not a huge amount, about $2,100 monthly, but more than if she had been forced to rely on her late husband’s pension from his job as a railroad engineer.
“From Day 1, I considered it a good thing,” Baldwin said. “It means I can stay in my house, which is paid for, and I am debt-free.”
Baldwin is among a relatively small group of older women who enjoy decent pensions. Many women of her generation did not qualify for retirement benefits because they took time away from the workplace, or worked part time, to raise children or tend to aging parents. As a result, the majority over 70 rely on Social Security for most of their income, with an average monthly check of around $1,300.
But those like Baldwin, who worked consistently for long periods and enjoyed the benefits of working in fields like health care, education and public administration – where defined-benefit pensions became more prevalent – are in a sweeter spot.
Few people in those groups became rich. But very few fell into poverty, either. And in retirement, workers in those disciplines are more secure than are their peers who worked in other industries, according to a report released in March by the National Institute on Retirement Security. Only 4 percent of retired women over 65 who worked in education, for example, are poor, according to the institute’s report, “Shortchanged in Retirement, Continuing Challenges to Women’s Financial Future.”
Women who retired as public administrators have a slightly higher poverty rate, 5 percent, and retired female health services workers are at 7 percent. By comparison, the poverty rate for retail workers is 9 percent.
An important factor is that those fields, in which women are a significant portion of the workforce, are more likely to still offer a defined-benefit pension plan. Most public-school teachers, for example, have pensions. Nurses have lagged teachers because fewer hospitals and health care systems have offered traditional pensions, but they are still better protected than those working in most other fields.
For most women reaching retirement age today, however, their situation is still generally worse than that of their male counterparts.
“Women are 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older, while women between the ages of 75 and 79 are three times more likely than men to be living in poverty,” said Diane Oakley, the retirement security institute’s executive director.
Much of that can be traced to a persistent gender gap in retirement income. Men in 2014 received $17,856 in median pension income, according to the institute’s study; women had about one-third less, or about $12,000. A similar disparity applies to 401(k) savings, where women accumulated, on average, about two-thirds of what their male counterparts saved.
A large part of the difference between women, who had $25,000 invested, on average, and men, who had $36,875, stemmed, of course, from continuing disparities in wages.
“The wage gap between men and women has narrowed,” said Lori A. Trawinski of the AARP Public Policy Institute, which published a study last year titled “Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Chartbook on Women’s Progress.” “But underneath that improvement lies a much more complicated picture of the role that employment has played in the lives of women over the past several decades.”
Trawinksi explained that discrimination and gender segregation within industries meant smaller paychecks and, as a result, lower savings. At retirement age, women are likely to be more financially vulnerable since more are single, divorced or widowed, and many are feeling insecure about their finances in retirement. Two-thirds of the women in a 2015 survey by the consumer marketing research firm GfK, felt unsure or pessimistic about their retirement finances, compared with 40 percent of the men who felt the same way.
Most nurses are on their own when it comes to saving for retirement. Fewer than 500,000 nurses are working under a collective bargaining agreement, said Pamela F. Cipriano, president of the American Nurses Association, which represents 3.4 million registered nurses.
Nurses generally are not subject to mandatory retirement ages, so – officially, at least – they can stay in the workforce longer. But it’s a difficult, demanding job that wears down even the healthiest person.
“Most every job description,” Cipriano said, “lists that a nurse must be able to move 20 or so pounds and walk a certain number of miles daily.”
The nurses association has teamed up with Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax, Va., to offer no-cost retirement planning sessions for nurses. “Women saw that the world was very fragile after 2001,” said Ric Edelman, who founded the nationwide firm. “It was not only because of the terrorist attacks, but also because the tech bubble burst and financial losses were even greater than they’ve been since.
“Women began to see that they needed to take action to protect themselves.”
Given the evaporation of traditional pensions and the stagnation of wages, the next generation of women to reach retirement age is likely to spend more time working. Increasing numbers of women over 55 are working full or part time, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by the end of this decade, about 20 percent of the women over 65 will be in the labor force.
“Some women want to work,” Trawinski, of the AARP, said, “but many must work to increase their security in retirement.”