Earnings Gap Hits Mom’s Social Security

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Mothers often work less because, well, they’re also moms.

Still, they generally work consistently enough to qualify for Social Security pensions based on their own earnings records – rather than on their husbands’, as was common when more women were full-time housewives or worked just a few hours a week while the kids were at school.

Yet today’s working mothers do take a hit to their earnings when they temporarily reduce their hours or take a hiatus from work for childcare. The upshot of lower earnings is less Social Security income later for mothers, according to a new study by researchers for the Center for Retirement Research (CRR supports this blog).

The researchers, Matt Rutledge, Alice Zulkarnain, and Sara Ellen King, used data on all older women – married or single, mother or not.  First, they confirmed past studies showing that the typical mom earns about $2,760 per month – or 28 percent less than a childless woman earns. Having two children translates to nearly 32 percent less income, and three children, to 35 percent less. (The analysis adjusts for some things – education is one – but not all the factors that distinguish mothers from non-mothers.)

Mothers’ lower Social Security benefits reflect this earnings penalty, though by a smaller percentage.  Mothers’ benefit checks are 16 percent less than women who had no children to care for.  Benefits are also lower if they had more children – by 18 percent for two children and nearly 21 percent for three.

Mitigating the impact on mom’s benefits are the Social Security program’s progressive calculations for lower-income workers and the spousal benefit for moms who work part-time or not at all. A spousal benefit, equal to half of a working husband’s benefit, is almost like a bonus to them – even the stay-at-home moms receive it, though they don’t have a work history.  Nevertheless, mothers overall do receive lower benefits.

Many European countries have addressed this disparity.  Policies under the federal social security systems of Portugal, Spain, Austria, and Sweden, for example, give mothers (and sometimes fathers) earnings credits for time spent out of the labor force during pregnancy and child-rearing. The credits apply when it’s time to calculate their retirement benefits. Similar proposals for the United States haven’t gotten very far.

While nothing may be more rewarding than motherhood, smaller retirement benefits are a reality in this country.

The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

Tony Webb

Women choose whether, when, and how frequently to reproduce. They are likely well aware of the cost, not only in terms of diapers, but in terms of foregone earnings, and it would be surprising if this cost didn’t affect their decisions. Women who have more children likely had poorer labor market prospects, and this difference in labor market prospects likely biased the estimates of the Social Security cost of children.

    Michael Waggoner

    Reply to Tony Webb:

    Most people are aware that there is discrimination by gender, race, etc. That awareness does not excuse discrimination. Because each of us is descended from a long line of mothers, and because we are dependent on descendants of mothers to run the society and the economy that we all depend on, we should all oppose discrimination against mothers.

    Elin Zander

    None of us would benefit from a society without children. To penalize women for having and raising children who will eventually grow up to be productive adults is backwards. I would also guess that most women of childbearing age are not factoring in eventual Social Security benefits when determining if to have children or how many children to have. If they were, we might find out what a childless society is all about. Thanks, Mom!

Kim Blanton (blogger)

Thanks for the comments Tony and Michael!

Technically, Michael, Social Security doesn’t discriminate: it calculates every single worker’s benefit exactly the same way.

Rather the issue for moms is that if they take time off they don’t get as many high-earning years to use in the 35 years Social Security uses to calculate all benefits.

However, many people have proposed adjusting for this disadvantage since, as you say, we all have, are, or are married to mothers.

    Michael Dinich

    Hello Kim,

    You’re correct that the calculations are the same for everyone, and eliminating the option to file a restricted application was not intended to impact any particular type of people. Anyone with a gap in their earning years would see a reduction in lifetime benefits by this change. It just happens that stay-at-mothers are most routinely impacted. The inverse would be true as well if the father temporarily left the workforce to provide childcare. We are certainly seeing an increase in stay-at-home dads, however, the the statistics suggest it is still disproportionately women in that role.

Michael Dinich


When they recently changed the rules regarding restricted applications they penalized stay-at-home mothers. Prior the rule change, a stay-at-home mother that had enough credits on their own record could take spousal benefits and let their own benefits grow past full retirement age.

Great info, I will pass it along.


    Michael, you are right, but that pales in comparison to what they did to mothers who worked for 30 years, contributed for 30 years, yet were cut off by the same rule change. I also regret to say that not one word of concern was uttered from the Boston College Retirement Center. In fact, this organization led the charge to change the rules — not even a mention of the concerns you have expressed. They just “knew” they were right. I am sorry to have to say this, because the BCCRR folks do a lot of good things, but they were just plain wrong about this.



I know that not everyone will agree with my position, but you should at least think about it.

Men and women are different. You can’t argue about that. All efforts for equality will create inequality in some shape or form.

Of course, some women miss out on Social Security. But at the same time, it opens up a number of new opportunities. Spending time with a new born is a gift. Men have to go back to work after just a few weeks, women can enjoy this gift much longer…


Married women can chose to take their husband’s higher amount. Single or never-married women don’t have this choice. So…those are the ones getting the raw deal (only my humble opinion).


Maybe they should eliminate the spousal benefit for spouses who never worked, or paid a dime into Social Security. Instead, they went after spouses who did work and contributed, when Obama eliminated the “file and suspend” option.

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