A Campaign Ad, Sunny Side Up

Lucky Julia. The cartoon character, as portrayed in an online ad created for President Obama's re-election campaign, is on a path to enjoy a life of security and prosperity. From Head Start to Social Security, government programs will take care of Julia, the comic-book-style ad suggests, unless Mitt Romney gets to be president and cuts or eliminates all those federal benefits.

In fact, though, the star of the slideshow-style infographic might do better when she retires at age 67 if she were Julian rather than Julia. According to a new report from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation, women - especially minority women - end up shortchanged by Social Security. Because women earn less than men, on average, and don't receive credit under Social Security for all the years they might spend caring for children or elderly parents, their benefits are lower.

"The Social Security system as we know it is still about yesterday's workforce,'' DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, said at a recent Capitol Hill briefing. "The great challenge of the feminist movement was all on the front end of the workforce." And the back end? Women, Norton pointed out, are now finding that once they retire, they tend to receive lower benefits.

Eligible women receive an average of $12,155 a year in Social Security benefits, according to the report, Breaking the Social Security Glass Ceiling, while men receive an average of $15,620. So while the Obama ad claims that Julia's monthly benefits will "help her to retire comfortably, without worrying that she'll run out of savings,'' the report suggested that, unless Social Security is changed, Julia might not feel so secure.

There are yet other unanswered questions in the Obama ad. Why, for example, does Julia reflexively put her gray hair in a prissy bun when she turns 65? And how does she manage to avoid America's expanding-waistline epidemic? Or, most important, would Julia be able to have a comfortable, worry-free retirement if she were a sales clerk or secretary instead of a successful entrepreneur?

Then, of course, there's the matter of how to keep Social Security on solid financial footing for future retirees. The smart money says we'll be hearing a lot more about that between now and November than about how to make Social Security benefits better, or fairer. -Susan Milligan

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