NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Social Security Benefits Are Out of Step

April 26, 2000

Social Security benefits are designed for one-earner married couples that were the norm when the program was created in 1939. However, the benefits are mismatched with the composition of many modern families, making Social Security an increasingly bad deal for widows, divorcees, unmarried women and minorities.

Social Security reduced the poverty rate among seniors from 35.2 percent in 1950 to 10.8 percent today, but some demographic groups have higher poverty rates than others.

  • Women age 65 and over face a poverty rate of 13 percent, while men's poverty rate is only 7 percent.
  • Minority women, because they are disproportionately unmarried and in lower paying jobs, are more likely to be poor.
  • Only 2.4 percent of married seniors are below poverty, compared with 16.2 percent of never-married seniors, 14.4 percent of widowed seniors and 21.2 percent of divorced seniors.

Currently, a couple must be married 10 years for the spouse to receive divorcee benefits. However, by 1990, marriages that ended in divorce lasted an average of 7 years. Thus the population of seniors below poverty will likely increase as the proportion of aging women who will be disqualified from receiving spousal and survivor benefits due to early divorce and lower earnings increases.

Source: Rochelle Stanfield and Corinna Nicolaou, "Social Security: Out of Step with the Modern Family," April 2000, Urban Institute, 2100 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037, (202) 833-7200.


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