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Social Security and Older Women

Why the program is an essential — and poverty-preventing — retirement resource

More than one in four older women rely on Social Security for nearly all of their family income, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report “Social Security: A Key Retirement Resource for Women.”

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In addition, the PPI analysis shows that in 2010 alone, Social Security kept roughly 38 percent of women age 65 and older out of poverty. But even with Social Security income, almost 11 percent of older women — a full 2.4 million — lived in poverty.

Social Security retirement benefits are earned by having at least 40 quarters (generally 10 years) of Social Security qualified wages or self-employment income. Retirement benefits may also be based on a current or former spouse’s earnings.

Among the reasons Social Security is especially important to women:

  • Women typically earn less on average than men do (in 2010, women’s earnings for all occupations were 81 percent of men’s earnings), are more likely than men to work part time, and are more likely than men to have gaps in their employment. All of these factors result in lower lifetime earnings for women.

  • Since women tend to live longer than men do, they are more likely to outlive their savings. Social Security provides needed protection to women because the retirement benefits are guaranteed for life and are adjusted to keep pace with inflation.

  • Women are less likely than men to have additional sources of retirement income, such as pensions and savings. In 2010, 26.3 percent of older women — compared with 20.2 percent of older men — relied on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their family income.

  • More than one-third of widowed women age 65-plus rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their family income. In 2010, Social Security kept 45 percent of widowed women out of poverty.

  • Among divorced women that age, just under one-third depend on Social Security for almost all of their family income.

The report also discusses ways Social Security can be adapted to better serve women:

  • The creation of an “enhanced minimum benefit” for people who’ve had long careers but low income would ensure that workers receive a minimum level of benefits regardless of their lifetime earnings. Such a benefit would be particularly useful to never-married and divorced women who have low lifetime earnings but enough years of covered employment to be eligible for Social Security.

  • The creation of caregiving credits — which count as time spent working for the purposes of Social Security benefit calculations — would be beneficial to individuals who leave the paid workforce in order to care for a child or adult family member.

  • By tying Social Security survivor benefits to a married couple’s combined earnings rather than the deceased worker’s earnings, women (and men) who have significant work histories of their own would not experience a decrease in income after the death of a spouse.

  • In cases of divorce, Social Security requires that a marriage have lasted 10 years in order for an individual to be eligible for spousal-based Social Security benefits. Reducing the required length of a marriage could help lower the high poverty rates among divorced women, who are less likely than married or widowed women to have any Social Security income.

Also of interest: How women strengthen Social Security.

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