How Work & Marriage Trends Affect Social Security’s Family Benefits

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The brief’s key findings are:

  • Social Security’s spousal and survivor (“family”) benefits were designed in the 1930s for a one-earner married couple.
  • Today, family benefits contribute less to retirement income because most married women work, and many households are headed by single mothers.
  • Single mothers who were never married are not eligible for family benefits, nor are divorced women who were married less than 10 years.
  • These women often find it harder to earn an adequate Social Security benefit on their own, as their work opportunities are constrained by child-rearing duties.
  • Policy experts have suggested ways to help:
    • Earnings sharing among married couples could raise benefits for women who later become divorced.
    • Caregiving credits could help mothers regardless of their marital status.