Linking Benefits to Marital Status: Race and Diminishing Access to Social Security Spouse and Widow

Madonna Harrington MeyerDouglas A. Wolf Christine L. Himes

WP#2004-5

Abstract

Social Security retirement benefits have been noted for their capacity to redistribute benefits from higher to lower lifetime earners. However, two-thirds of older women receive spouse and widow benefits and the distributional impact of those benefits has not been well studied. Spouse and widow benefits are distributed on the basis of marital rather than employment status and generally require recipients to be either currently married or to have had a ten-year marriage. The unprecedented retreat from marriage, particularly among black women, means the distributional impact of these benefits changes dramatically for each cohort that enters old age. This paper uses June 1985, 1990 and 1995 CPS supplement data to trace the decline in marital rates for women for five cohorts. The main question is what proportion of women in each cohort will reach age 62 without a ten-year marriage and thus be ineligible for spouse and widow benefits. We find that the proportion who will not be eligible as spouses or widows is increasing modestly for whites and Hispanics but dramatically for African Americans. The growing race gap in marital rates means that older black women will be particularly unlikely to qualify for these benefits.