Social Security is a lifeline for older women, particularly older women from racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination. More than one-quarter of white women age 65 and older and over one-third of African-American and Hispanic women age 65 and older rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their family income. Without Social Security, almost half of all older women would be in poverty. Women are more reliant than men on Social Security because they have a longer life expectancy and are less likely than men to have adequate pensions or savings. They also earn, on average, about three-fourths of what men earn, and spend more time out of the labor force or working part time to care for children and other family members. For example, among a sample of individuals born between 1926 and 1960, women were projected to spend a median of ten years out of the workforce for caregiving, compared with just two years for men. In addition, women represent approximately two-thirds of adults providing substantial assistance to care recipients age 50 and over. Of the 73 percent of caregivers who work, 66 percent made adjustments to their work schedules. As a result of annual earnings disparities and time spent out of the labor force, women have lower lifetime earnings than men and thus accrue lower Social Security benefits based on their earnings history.
The benefits women receive must be protected and, if possible, improved. Some have proposed that caregivers be given credits for time taken off to care for children or other family members, as has been done in other countries. Others have proposed that the survivor’s benefit be raised from two-thirds to three-quarters of the couple’s combined benefit. These are important considerations because of the large role Social Security plays in women’s retirement security.
Benefits for Women and Caregivers: Policy
All proposals designed to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security should be evaluated for their impact on caregivers. Policymakers should not adopt changes that worsen caregivers’ financial situation.
Consistent with maintaining the long-term solvency of the trust funds, policymakers should consider reforms that would protect and, if possible, improve Social Security benefits for people who provide caregiving to children, older adults, and others.