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Research Report

In Brief: From Work to Retirement: Tracking Changes in Women’s Poverty Status

This and Related Reports

    Table of Contents:

    • White and African-American women retirees: differences and similarities.
    • What about younger generations of women. How will they fare in retirement?
    • What do policy makers need to know to help retired women escape poverty?
    • Methodology

    Many mothers of the baby boom generation face increased chances of being poor in their retirement years even as poverty rates among older Americans have declined substantially over the past several decades.

    The critical factors that most influence whether older women will become or stay poor during the retirement years are marital status (divorced, widowed or never married are negatives), employment (having a job is a plus) and health (good health is a major benefit).

    There is also a greater risk of poverty in old age for women than for men. Elderly women are nearly twice as likely to be poor as elderly men and the risk of poverty increases as women age. While poverty rates among the elderly are low for married couples, they are significantly higher for unmarried women who are widowed, divorced or never married.

    Because of longer life expectancy for women, they are more likely to experience the loss of their spouse, live alone in old age and become financially vulnerable. Nearly 40 percent of women 65 and older between 1998 and 2000 were unmarried and living alone, compared with only 16 percent of men.

    Also, in 2001 when most women in this study were in retirement, the poverty rate was three times higher for African-American women (42 percent) than for white women (14 percent).

    This study examines the extent and possible causes of women's poverty status as they move from their midlife years (ages 30 to 44) and pre-retirement years (ages 45-59) into the retirement years (ages 64-78). The study traces how major changes in women's lives – marital status, labor force status and health status – influence the risk of being poor.

    White and African-American women retirees: differences and similarities.

    • During the early retirement years, both white and African-American women had increased risk of poverty. Only those who remained married, continued to work, or remained in good health maintained relatively low rates of poverty.
    • For both white and African-American women, those who were married were significantly less likely to be poor over their entire life span than women who were unmarried (widowed, divorced, or never married.)
    • African-Americans were substantially less likely to have income from assets compared to white women.
    • Income from a pension plan plays a critical role in preventing African-American women from sinking into poverty during retirement years, more so than among white women.
    • Nearly two-thirds of white women who are poor in old age have not been poor in the earlier years. This demonstrates an increased risk or a newly emerging risk of poverty for many white women.
    • Old age poverty for African-American women reflects economic disadvantages in their earlier years compared with white women.
    • Income generating employment during retirement years is crucial in keeping both groups out of poverty.

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