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The Wealth and Poverty of Widows: Assets Before and After the Husband's Death

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  • Michael D. Hurd
  • David A. Wise

Abstract

We verify that widows are much more likely than couples to be poor and that they make up a large proportion of the poor elderly; 80 percent are widows or other single individuals. Then we seek to explain why the single elderly are poor, with emphasis on widows. We do this by tracing back over time their financial status, using the Longitudinal Retirement History Survey. The death of the husband very often induces the poverty of the surviving spouse, even though the married couple was not poor. While only about 9 percent of prior couples are poor, approximately 35 percent of the subsequent widows are. A large proportion of the wealth of the couple is lost when the husband dies. In addition we find that: (1) the prior households of poor widows earned and saved less than the prior households of non-poor widows, (2) more of the smaller accumulated wealth was lost at the death of the husband, (3) the absence of survivorship benefits or life insurance insured that the loss in wealth would leave the widow poor thereafter.

Suggested Citation

  • Michael D. Hurd & David A. Wise, 1987. "The Wealth and Poverty of Widows: Assets Before and After the Husband's Death," NBER Working Papers 2325, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:2325
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    1. Lillard, Lee A & Willis, Robert J, 1978. "Dynamic Aspects of Earning Mobility," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 46(5), pages 985-1012, September.
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    1. Goda, Gopi Shah & Shoven, John B. & Slavov, Sita Nataraj, 2013. "Does widowhood explain gender differences in out-of-pocket medical spending among the elderly?," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 32(3), pages 647-658.
    2. Michael D. Hurd, 1989. "The Poverty of Widows: Future Prospects," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Aging, pages 201-230, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Tilman Bruck & Kati Schindler, 2009. "The Impact of Violent Conflicts on Households: What Do We Know and What Should We Know about War Widows?," Oxford Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 37(3), pages 289-309.
    4. Orazio P. Attanasio & Hilary Williamson Hoynes, 2000. "Differential Mortality and Wealth Accumulation," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 35(1), pages 1-29.
    5. Streeter, Jialu L., 2020. "Gender differences in widowhood in the short-run and long-run: Financial, emotional, and mental wellbeing," The Journal of the Economics of Ageing, Elsevier, vol. 17(C).
    6. B. Douglas Bernheim & Katherine Grace Carman & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2001. "The Mismatch Between Life Insurance Holdings and Financial Vulnerabilities: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances," NBER Working Papers 8544, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Michael D. Hurd, 1989. "Issues and Results from Research on the Elderly I: Economic Status (Part I of III Parts)," NBER Working Papers 3018, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. B. Douglas Bernheim & Lorenzo Forni & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2003. "The Mismatch Between Life Insurance Holdings and Financial Vulnerabilities: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(1), pages 354-365, March.
    9. Alan L. Gustman & F. Thomas Juster, 1995. "Income and Wealth of Older American Households: Modeling Issues for Public Policy Analysis," NBER Working Papers 4996, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. David R. Weir & Robert J. Willis & Purvi A. Sevak, 2002. "The Economic Consequences of Widowhood," Working Papers wp023, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
    11. B. Douglas Bernheim & Lorenzo Forni & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2001. "The mismatch between life insurance holdings and financial vulnerabilities: evidence from the Health and Retirement Survey," Working Papers (Old Series) 0109, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
    12. James P. Smith, 2004. "New Directions in Socioeconomic Research on Aging," Labor and Demography 0403016, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    13. B. Douglas Bernheim & Lorenzo Forni & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 1999. "The adequacy of life insurance: evidence from the health and retirement survey," Working Papers (Old Series) 9914, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
    14. Steven F. Venti & David A. Wise, 1989. "Aging, Moving, and Housing Wealth," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Aging, pages 9-54, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    15. Nicholas, Lauren Hersch & Baum, Micah Y., 2020. "Wills, public policy, and financial well-being among surviving spouses," The Journal of the Economics of Ageing, Elsevier, vol. 16(C).
    16. Kathleen McGarry, 1995. "Factors Determining Participation of the Elderly in SSI," NBER Working Papers 5250, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    17. Karen E. Dynan & Jonathan Skinner & Stephen P. Zeldes, 2004. "Do the Rich Save More?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(2), pages 397-444, April.
    18. Jonathan S. Skinner, 1996. "Is Housing Wealth a Sideshow?," NBER Chapters, in: Advances in the Economics of Aging, pages 241-272, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    19. C. D. Zick & K. Holden, "undated". "An Assessment of the Wealth Holdings of Recent Widows," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 1188-99, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.
    20. Alan J. Auerbach & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & David N. Weil, 1992. "The Increasing Annuitization of the Elderly- Estimates and Implications for Intergenerational Tranfers, Inequality, and National Saving," NBER Working Papers 4182, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    21. Michael Hurd & Elaine Reardon, 2003. "Real Wealth Changes from 1982 to 1991 Among the Newly Retired," Working Papers 03-15, RAND Corporation.
    22. Alicia H. Munnell & Geoffrey Sanzenbacher & Alice Zulkarnain, 2020. "What Factors Explain the Decline in Widowed Women’s Poverty?," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 57(5), pages 1881-1902, October.
    23. Namkee Ahn, "undated". "Economic Consequences of Widowhood in Europe: Cross-country and Gender Differences," Working Papers 2004-27, FEDEA.
    24. K. C. Holden & S. Nicholson, "undated". "Selection of a Joint-and-Survivor Pension," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 1175-98, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.

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