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How Will Declining Rates of Marriage Reshape Eligibility for Social Security?

For most older people in the United States, Social Security is the major source of income: nine out of ten people age 65 or older receive benefits, which represent an average of 41 percent of their income. Largely as a result of Social Security, poverty rates for the elderly are at an all-time low, just 10 percent. But pockets of poverty persist: older unmarried persons, blacks, and Hispanics experience poverty rates in excess of 20 percent, and over 40 percent of all older single black women live in poverty. People quality for Social Security based either on their work record or their marital status. Most older women receive noncontributory Social Security spouse of widow benefits on the basis of their marital history. For these women, marital status is more important than employment status in shaping old-age financial security. However, the trend to marry and stay married has declined over time in the United States, particularly among black women. This, we hypothesize, means that fewer women will qualify for spouse and widow benefits in coming decades. As a result, Social Security benefits will shrink among the very population that currently reports higher poverty rates, older single women, particularly black women. In this policy brief, we ask: Compared to earlier cohorts, what proportion of white, black, and Hispanic women born in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s will enter old age without a marriage that qualifies them for Social Security spouse and widow benefits? We find that the proportion who will reach age 62 without a qualifying marriage, and thus be ineligible for Social Security spouse and widow benefits, is increasing modestly for whites and Hispanics but dramatically for African Americans. Most of these women will be eligible for retired worker benefits under Social Security, but those benefits are not likely to be as large as the benefits they would have received as spouses and widows, had they been eligible. We then discuss a range of policy alternatives, including the possibility of a minimum benefit.

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Paper provided by Center for Policy Research, Maxwell School, Syracuse University in its series Center for Policy Research Policy Briefs with number 33.

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Length: 24 pages
Date of creation: Jul 2006
Handle: RePEc:max:cprpbr:33
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  1. Richard V. Burkhauser & Timothy M. Smeeding, 1994. "Social Security Reform: A Budget Neutral Approach to Reducing Older Women's Disproportional Risk of Poverty," Center for Policy Research Policy Briefs 2, Center for Policy Research, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.
  2. Joshua Goldstein, 1999. "The leveling of divorce in the united states," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 36(3), pages 409-414, August.
  3. Michael J. Boskin & Douglas J. Puffert, 1987. "Social Security and the American Family," NBER Working Papers 2117, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Flowers, Marilyn R, 1979. "Supplemental Benefits for Spouses under Social Security: A Public Choice Explanation of the Law," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 17(1), pages 125-130, January.
  5. Susanna Sandström & Timothy Smeeding, 2005. "Poverty and Income Maintenance in Old Age: A Cross-National View of Low Income Older Women," LIS Working papers 398, LIS Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg.
  6. Michael J. Boskin & Douglas J. Puffert, 1987. "Social Security and the American Family," NBER Chapters,in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 1, pages 139-159 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Alicia H. Munnell, 2004. "Why Are So Many Older Women Poor?," Just the Facts jtf_10, Center for Retirement Research.
  8. Gary V. Engelhardt & Jonathan Gruber, 2004. "Social Security and the Evolution of Elderly Poverty," NBER Working Papers 10466, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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