The Evolution of Social Security Disabled Widow(er)s’ Benefits

Eric R. KingsonMargaret Morse Gary Cal

WP#2003-9

Abstract

Initially enacted in 1967, the Social Security disabled widow(er)s benefit provides permanently reduced cash benefits equal to 71 1/2 percent of the deceased spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA) to approximately 195,000 disabled widows and 5,000 widowers ages 50 through 64. Among the most economically at risk beneficiaries, an estimated 37 percent have below-poverty incomes. This paper begins with a discussion of the benefit’s incremental evolution, including the rationale behind the original legislation, subsequent amendments and policy proposals. It then profiles current and potential disabled widow(er) beneficiaries, and assesses proposals to liberalize the benefit — including proposals to eliminate the age 50 eligibility criteria, reform the onset of disability requirement, increase the benefit amount to 100 percent of the PIA, and eliminate the 24 month waiting period for Medicare benefits. The analysis draws upon government and other policy documents, interviews with policy actors and six years of pooled Current Population Survey data.