NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Divorce And Social Security

May 21, 1999

Social Security treats families inequitably, due to adjustments it makes to benefits where spouses, survivors and divorced former partners of workers are involved. For example, a divorced person married for 10 years or more is entitled to full spousal and survivor benefits, while one married less than 10 years is entitled to none.

Because women are more likely than men to receive survivor's benefits or spousal benefits based on the income of a higher- earning spouse, these inequities contribute to poverty among elderly women.

  • percentage of women currently divorced has risen among all age groups, more than tripling from 2.54 percent in 1970 to 8.16 percent in 1997.
  • Among men and women ages 65 and over, the currently divorced are more likely to fall below the poverty line than those who are married; the probability is even greater for those who are widowed, separated or were never married; and the overall poverty rate is much higher for women than men.
  • Women comprise 73.4 percent and men only 26.6 percent of poor seniors.

Reforms should including a minimum benefit that removes most of the elderly from poverty; earnings sharing that gives each spouse credit for a proportionate amount of taxes paid; a change in benefit formulas so two working spouses with similar incomes receive benefits comparable to a couple in which only one spouse works; and actuarial balance so the system no longer provides greater benefits to couples simply because their age difference is greater.

The individual accounts proposed in some reform plans could easily be designed to be shared more or less equally in the case of divorce. Further, individual accounts and USA accounts do not necessarily reduce progressivity any more than do private pensions. The goal should be to find a proper balance.

Source: C. Eugene Steuerle (Urban Institute), Divorce and Social Security," Brief Analysis No. 291, May 21, 1999, National Center for Policy Analysis, 12770 Coit Rd., Suite 800, Dallas, Texas 75251, (972) 386-6272.

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