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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Social Security: Revisiting Benefits for Spouses and Survivors

Alison M. Shelton
Analyst in Income Security

Dawn Nuschler
Specialist in Income Security

Social Security auxiliary benefits were established in 1939 when Congress extended benefits to the dependents and survivors of workers covered by Social Security. Since 1939, Social Security auxiliary benefits have been modified by Congress numerous times to change eligibility requirements for spouses, widows, children, and others and to expand eligibility for auxiliary benefits to new groups of beneficiaries, such as divorcĂ©(e)s, husbands, and widowers.

Auxiliary benefits are paid to the spouse, former spouse, survivor, child, or parent of a Social Security-covered worker and are equal to a specified percentage of the worker’s basic monthly benefit amount (subject to a maximum family benefit amount). For example, the spouse of a retired worker may receive up to 50% of the retired worker’s basic benefit and the widow(er) of a retired worker may receive up to 100% of the retired worker’s basic benefit.

When auxiliary benefits were first established, most households consisted of a single earner— usually the husband—and a wife who cared for children and remained out of the paid workforce. As a result, benefits for non-working spouses were structured to be relatively generous. A woman who was never employed but is married to a man with high Social Security-covered wages may receive a Social Security spousal benefit that is higher than the retirement benefit received by a single woman, or a woman who was married less than 10 years, who worked a full career in a low-wage job.

In recent decades, this household structure has changed in part because women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers. The labor force participation rate of women with children under the age of 18 increased from 47% in 1975 to 71% in 2008. As a result, many women now qualify for Social Security benefits based on their own work records. In some cases, under the current benefit structure, a two-earner household may receive lower total Social Security benefits than a single-earner household with identical total Social Security-covered earnings. Women are, however, more likely than men to take breaks in employment to care for family members, which can result in fewer years of contributions to Social Security and employer-sponsored pension plans.

Another change since 1939 has been an increase in the number of men and women who remain single or who have divorced. Persons who have never married, or who were married for less than 10 years, do not qualify for Social Security spousal or survivor benefits under current law.

Proposals to modify the Social Security auxiliary benefit structure are generally motivated by desire to improve equity for families, or adequacy for certain beneficiaries, rather than by the financial status of the Social Security system. For example, some proposals address the adequacy of benefits for certain groups of beneficiaries such as elderly and widowed women. Although Social Security plays an important role in the retirement security of aged women, about 17% of divorced Social Security beneficiaries and 23% of never-married female Social Security beneficiaries have total incomes below the official poverty line.

This report describes the current-law structure of auxiliary benefits for spouses, divorced spouses and surviving spouses. It also discusses some of the issues concerning the adequacy and equity of the current-law structure of auxiliary benefits, and presents some recent proposals.

Date of Report: November 5, 2010
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: R41479
Price: $29.95

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