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Destie Hohman Sprague is the executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. Jess Maurer is the executive director of the Maine Council on Aging.
At the intersection of challenges faced by Maine women and older Mainers are thousands of older Maine women who lack the economic security to meet their basic needs because of a lifetime of discrimination and disparities.
A new data report, compiled by the Cutler Institute of Health and Social Policy, demonstrates how women and men compare across a lifespan regarding income, caregiving, living arrangements and disability rates.
The report finds that Maine women make less money than men across the lifespan and are more likely to live in poverty. Race, ethnicity and gender have compounding effects: women of color face higher rates of poverty compared to white women across all ages.
The wage gap isn’t the only issue. Women are also more likely to work in occupations that have been undervalued and underpaid – in part because they are traditionally “women’s roles” – in fact, research shows that when women join industries that pay more, wages go down as employers value the work less.
Finally, 85 percent of Maine caregivers are women. This unpaid care labor means women are more likely to work part-time or to leave the workforce, limiting their ability to access health insurance or to save for retirement, and reducing Social Security benefits in later life. The lack of social infrastructure such as Paid Family and Medical Leave only exacerbates this problem.
Taken together, wage disparities, undervalued labor, and unpaid care labor mean that women enter their older years far less financially secure than men.
Once in their older years, the report finds that older Maine women are twice as likely as older men to live alone, and about half of those don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs. They are also more likely to have a disability, meaning they are more likely to need support they can’t afford. By the time they reach age 80, Maine women are twice as likely than men to live in poverty.
As is the case during their working years, the infrastructure to support older Mainers falls short. Medicare does not cover home care or nursing homes. In 2020, the annual costs of a home health aide and a semi-private room in a nursing facility were $65,483 and $115,705, respectively. Thousands of older Maine women cannot afford this care – many falling just below eligibility for programs that could help.
Too many older Maine women face choices no one should have to make: which necessities to pay for, which to go without. This doesn’t allow women to age with dignity or security.
These issues will grow and continue to plague our shrinking workforce – but the data in this report can help build a pathway forward. We must work to:
Improve statewide systems to keep women working, like paid family and medical leave and quality, affordable child and adult care.
Create solutions for unpaid family caregivers, such as Social Security credits and other caregiver supports.
Fairly value and compensate professional caregivers including direct support workers and childcare providers.
Address age and gender discrimination in wages and workplaces – many older women must keep working, but are passed over or pushed into lower paying jobs.
Reform the long-term supports and services system through a gender-equity lens, addressing gaps in services, expanding program eligibility, and creating new eligibility standards.
Increase funding for programs that support Mainers to live comfortably at home: home modification, alert systems, affordable housing, and targeted outreach to older Mainers who live alone.
We cannot separate the lives and experiences of older women from economic disparities across a lifespan. We must act to right a lifetime of injustices, and lift older Maine women out of poverty. They’ve made a lifetime of contributions to our families, communities and economy. It’s time for us to honor these contributions with systemic change.