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Women and Social Security

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Document date: December 12, 2005
Released online: December 12, 2005

Brief #7 from the series Older Americans' Economic Security

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.


Social Security keeps millions of American women out of poverty in old age, but many low-income unmarried women remain at risk. The program provides more generous benefits to some women over others with the same earnings, and favors married women who do not work outside the home. Renewed attention to Social Security's long-term deficit offers an opportunity for reform to recognize women's changing roles without creating inequities, discouraging work, or harming the most vulnerable.

This brief discusses features of Social Security that have greater ramifications for women and considers proposals to make benefit distribution more equitable to women. Since women have diverse work and family experiences, any reform is likely to have disparate effects. We highlight differences among groups of women while recognizing the diversity within them.

Features of Social Security that Affect Women

More women than men receive Social Security (24.8 million women, compared to 18.9 million men in December 2004). And its progressive formula and lifetime annuity payments disproportionately benefit women, since women have lower earnings than men and live longer. But even with Social Security, lower earnings (often due to career interruptions for childrearing) and longer lives (and thus greater chances of becoming widowed) place women at higher risk of poverty in old age than men. Women in retirement received average monthly worker benefits of $826 in December 2004, while men averaged $1,077. About 12 percent of women 65 and older were estimated to be in poverty in 2004, compared to just 7 percent of men the same age (Whitman and Purcell 2005).

Social Security spousal and survivor benefits also disproportionately help women, but favor some over others. Entitled workers' spouses (or those divorced from workers after a marriage lasting at least ten years) can receive their own benefit or half of their spouse's benefit, whichever is greater.1 Surviving spouses receive the higher of their own benefit and the spouse's benefit.2 Spousal and survivor benefits overwhelmingly go to women since wives usually earn less than their husbands and outlive them.3

Spousal benefits favor non-working women, adversely affecting work incentives for women who earn much less than their spouses. In general, women who earn less than their spouses (in the extreme, a nonworking wife of a high-wage worker) receive larger Social Security benefits per dollar of tax paid than women whose earnings are similar to their spouses'. Women who will get a spouse benefit receive no return on their payroll contributions to Social Security, which reduces incentive to work (e.g., Favreault, Sammartino, and Steuerle 2002).

The share of unmarried women 65 and older in poverty is about four times higher than the share of married women (17.7 compared to 4.9 percent) (Social Security Administration 2005b. Table 8.1, pp. 141-142). Widows 65 and older are slightly less likely to be in poverty (16.0 percent) than divorced (22.3 percent) or never-married (20.7 percent) women (Social Security Administration 2005b. Table 8.1, pp.141-142). Spousal and survivor benefits contribute to these differences because they help most widows and many divorced women, but do not help never-married women. Such discrepancies in poverty risk will persist in the future, despite women's increasing labor force participation and wages (Toder et al. 1999, 2002).

Notes from this section of the report

1. Additional actuarial reductions apply when claiming benefits prior to the normal retirement age.

2. A worker whose spouse or survivor benefit is the larger of the two is referred to as "dually entitled."

3. Women are far more likely than men to qualify only for spouse or survivor benefits: almost 99 percent of spouse- or survivor-only beneficiaries aged 60 and older were women in 2004 (Urban Institute tabulation from Social Security Administration 2005a. Table 5.A10).

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Race/Ethnicity/Gender | Retirement and Older Americans


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