They say that the definition of a political gaffe is a politician caught telling the truth. Recently, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson got in trouble for speaking his mind about Social Security.

Simpson, the co-chair of President Barack Obama’s task force on deficit reduction, insulted those who depend on Social Security–many of them older women, children, and people with disabilities–by referring to the program as “a milk cow with 310 million tits.” Earlier, Simpson described the millions who depend on Social Security benefits as “lesser people.”

The National Organization for Women immediately called on Obama to fire Simpson and repudiate his unbelievably crass views. But Simpson is still on the job. And even worse, it’s widely expected that soon after the elections, Simpson’s commission will issue a report calling for radical cuts in Social Security benefits, either directly or by raising the retirement age. Either way, millions of women could be pushed out of the middle class and into poverty.

Women already comprise the largest group of elderly who live in poverty, a fact that reveals the urgency of improving–not cutting–benefits. But while a robust Social Security system helps protect women’s economic security, there’s another important step we must take: End wage discrimination in the workplace now. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act made it illegal for employers to pay women less than men for doing the same work. At the time, women earned just 58 cents for every dollar made by men.

More than 45 years later, the wage gap has narrowed, but not enough. Since 2002, women’s wages have been stalled at just 77 cents for each dollar earned by men. This means that over the course of her career, a woman on average is denied between $400,000 and $2 million in income–simply for being female!

Think about it. Every month, working women lose nearly a full week’s pay due to sex-based wage discrimination.

Losing that income may mean the difference between paying the mortgage or losing the family home. It often means that families don’t have enough income saved to weather economic downturns, pay for their kids’ college educations, or invest for a secure retirement.

Clearly the Equal Pay Act needs beefing up. That’s what the Paycheck Fairness Act does. It’s due to be voted on when Congress returns for its lame-duck session after the election. This legislation will be the most important advance the Senate can make to help struggling families survive, and even thrive.

Fair pay is the best means to strengthen the middle class and help lower-income earners move up. The Paycheck Fairness Act is a well-studied, balanced approach to reaching the goal of equal pay.

Fair pay and fair retirement. What could be simpler? Who could oppose such basic, fundamental rights?

Millionaires and billionaires who want to pay less in taxes, that’s who. And big businesses and their supporters in Congress who want to slash benefits urgently needed by the middle class. What can we do about it? It’s simple: With the midterm elections right around the corner, we should all be talking to the candidates, demanding answers, and voting.

Start by asking candidates to pledge that they will work to improve Social Security benefits, will vote against any cuts (whether direct or by raising the retirement age), and will vote to restore any benefits cut by the lame-duck Congress. Next, ask them to go on record in support of the basic human right to fair pay for women.

Once you’ve got their answers, go vote. Support candidates who are committed to wage fairness and retirement security. That will give Alan Simpson something to think about–and maybe give a women-friendly policy a fighting chance in Congress.

After all, who couldn’t use 400,000 of their own hard-earned dollars?

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Terry O'Neill

Terry O'Neill is the president of the National Organization for Women.

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