The Implications of Marital History Change on Women's Eligibility for Social Security Wife and Widow Benefits, 1990-2009

Article excerpt

Social Security retirement benefits in the United States (US) reflect marital histories and lifetime earnings of current and former married couples. Focusing on the link between marital history and benefit eligibility, this article examines women's marital patterns over the past two decades. Using the 1990 and 2009 Marital History Modules to the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation, descriptive/regression analysis reveals substantial changes in women's marital patterns among baby boomers and generation Xers. Those changes have prompted a decline in qualifying marital histories for Social Security spouse and widow benefits. The findings also reveal substantial variation by race/ethnicity. Black women are significantly more likely to be potentially ineligible for a marriage-based benefit than white women, particularly in more recent cohorts. Hispanic women's marriage-based eligibility is between that of black and white women. US-born Hispanic women had higher shares without a qualifying marital history compared with the foreign born.


Over the six decades following World War II, major sociodemographic changes occurred in the American family. An important research and public policy subject is to document those changes and their implications for retirement outcomes, particularly for the baby boom generation now entering retirement. In this article, we examine the change in women's marital patterns at different stages of the life course over the past two decades and its implications for women's eligibility status for Social Security spouse and survivor benefits at retirement age.

Women's financial circumstance in old age is a longstanding concern among policymakers and researchers (Ekerdt 2010; Favreault and Steuerle 2007; Government Accountability Office 2007; Holden and Fontes 2009; Lusardi and Mitchell 2008; Weaver 1997, 2010). Although the retirement security of women has improved significantly over the past 30 years, women have higher poverty rates in old age than men, in large part because they earn less over a lifetime and live longer (Blau and Kahn 2006; Weinberg 2007; Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010). Greater longevity also means that many women will spend some time during their life course as widows. Estimates from the Current Population Survey show that the poverty rate for women aged 65 or older in 2008 was almost double (11.9 percent) that of men (6.7 percent), with the unmarried group being particularly vulnerable to poverty (16.9 percent of single women compared with 5.0 percent of married women); see SSA (2010, Table 11.1).

A growing body of research has shown a connection between women's lifetime marital experiences and retirement outcomes (Couch and others 2011; Wilmoth and Koso 2002; Tamborini, Iams, and Whitman 2009; Zissimopoulos, Karney, and Rauer 2008). The main purpose of this study is to determine the implications of changing marital patterns on women's eligibility for Social Security marriage-based benefits at retirement. The Social Security program not only provides women with income as retired or disabled workers but also as spouses or widows of insured workers. Generally, a person must be currently married, widowed, or divorced from a 10-year marriage to qualify for a spouse or widow(er) benefit. This link between marital history and benefit eligibility means that the distribution of women who have the option of claiming spouse or widow benefits at retirement is subject to fundamental changes in marriage behavior.

In this article, we assess the evolution of women's potential eligibility for Social Security spouse and widow benefits over the past two decades. We draw from the 1990 and the recently released 2009 Marital History Modules to the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Our analysis compares the marital histories of women in their thirties, forties, and fifties in 2009 with similarly aged women in 1990 using descriptive and regression methods. …


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