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Home > Women And The Social Security Program

Women and the Social Security Program

      While distinctions in the treatment of men and women under the Social Security program are now virtually nonexistent, differences in the typical work patterns of men and women have significant effects on the benefits that they receive.

Gender Sensitive Program

      The Social Security program has not always been gender-neutral. At times, differences in the rules applying to men and women were quite obvious and significant. In nearly every case, women got more favorable treatment. For example, in 1956, women were granted the right to claim early-retirement benefits as early as age 62, while men had to wait until the normal retirement age of 65. Five years after, in 1961, men were finally granted the right to claim early-retirement benefits at age 62. In the same light, women were able to use, in general, three fewer years of earnings in the computation of their benefits compared to men who were born in the same year, which results in somewhat higher benefits for women than for men with identical birth dates and earnings histories. This is so because the average annual earnings always declines as more and more "high" years are included and such did not change until the mid-1970s.

      A series of Federal court decisions and legislative changes, culminating in a massive clean-up of the Social Security Act in 1983, eliminated virtually all of the gender-based differences in the law. The only remaining difference now of any significance is that women whose benefits were computed using the favorable shorter computation period that used to apply continue to receive the same benefits even today. These women are at least 86 years old in 1998. The benefits of otherwise identical men were not raised to what the benefits would have been if these beneficiaries had been able to use the more favorable computation procedure. Prospectively, however, identically situated men and women receive identical benefits provided that they have identical birth dates and earnings histories.

Earnings Patterns and Their Effects

      Men and women seldom have identical earnings histories. Men have historically spent more time in the paid labor force and while these differences have certainly shrunk in recent decades which have seen huge numbers of married women enter and remain in paid employment, they have not disappeared entirely. Most women still leave paid employment for at least a short time after having children and many even leave paid employment for a substantial period of years. These "gaps" in the earnings histories of women usually result in lower Social Security benefits than they would have received if they had worked steadily, as most men do.

      Even when women participate in paid employment, they still tend to earn less than men. The reasons for these differences are complicated, of course and cannot be completely explained by scientific study. On the average, however, they result in smaller Social Security benefits for women than for men.

      With the tremendous increase over the last three decades in the labor-force participation rates of women, one might wonder whether these problems might not go away on their own someday. While anything is possible, that does not seem likely. Women's labor-force participation rates have risen dramatically since the 1950s, but they seem to have stabilized at around 70 percent for married women at the typical working ages (higher for single women, of course), still substantially below the rates for men, which are over 90 percent at the typical working ages. The apparent ceiling in married women's labor-force participation rates is undoubtedly related to child-bearing and child-raising, the first of which is exclusively the domain of women and the second of which is dominated by women. The differences in wage rates between men and women are difficult to explain currently and are even more difficult to predict. However for as long as women are primarily responsible for child-care, some differential is likely to remain.

Social Security Benefits for Spouses and Widows

      Millions of women receive Social Security benefits as the spouses and widows of men who worked in Social Security-covered employment.

      Men are technically eligible to receive exactly the same benefits as women do, but few men actually receive spouse's or widower's benefits because of Social Security's dual-entitlement rules. These rules prevent duplication of benefits when a person is eligible for more than one type of Social Security benefits. For example, the 65-year-old widow of a deceased insured worker may have worked long enough in Social Security-covered employment to be eligible for a retired-worker benefit based on her own earnings record. In that case, she would receive her retired-worker benefit, and her potential widow's benefit would be reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount of her worker benefit. If the benefit based on her own work record exceeds her potential widow's benefit, then the widow's benefit would be reduced to zero.

      A beneficiary always receives his or her own retired-worker benefit (assuming that he or she applies for it), and any spouse or widow/er benefit is reduced accordingly, as described above. Because men are almost always eligible for substantial benefits based on their own earnings and usually had higher and more consistent earnings than their wives did, men seldom can receive any additional benefits based on their wives' earnings records. Therefore, the eligibility conditions for receiving spouse's and widow's benefits and the levels of those benefits tend to be of greater concern to women than to men.

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