The Social Security Administration (SSA) reports that the average annual Social Security income received by women 65 years and older in 2013 was $12,857, compared to $16,590 for men. That gap can mean the difference between living frugally and living in poverty. And many more older women do live in poverty than men. According to a 2013 study by the National Women’s Law Center, nearly 2.9 million women aged 65 and older lived in poverty, compared to 1.3 million men.
So why do women receive a lesser Social Security benefit than men?
The short answer is that Social Security rewards men for sex discrimination in the workplace, and perpetuates the harm suffered by women who are subject to sex discrimination in the workplace.
Just as it is important to eliminate the gender wage gap, it is important to eliminate the gender Social Security gap.
The Social Security Act was enacted on August 14, 1935 when men were family “breadwinners” and women were stay-at-home mothers. It was also a time when men earned pensions that covered their wives in retirement. Today, the traditional defined benefit pension is a thing of the past and half of marriages end in divorce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in four children today under the age of 18 — about 17.4 million — are being raised by a single mother without a father and 45 percent live below the poverty line.
Given this reality, it is not surprising that women fall short under the formula used by the SSA to calculate Social Security benefits. The SSA bases Social Security upon a worker’s average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which the worker earned the most. Men have and still do earn more over their working lives than women. The SSA reports that the median earnings of working-age women who worked full-time, year-round in 2013 were $39,000, compared to $49,000 for men.
Girls were and to some extent still are steered into lower-paying occupations (i.e. food server, hairdresser, child care worker, etc) while boys are encouraged to pursue higher-paying STEM professions. Meanwhile, women – even professional women – experience pregnancy discrimination and discrimination that is inked to child-rearing. According to a 2013 Pew study, mothers still have a disproportionate share of child care responsibilities – mothers devote 31 hours a week to child care versus 17 hours for fathers.
The Social Security gender gap reflects the cumulative impact of sex discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination, against women over many decades. It is simply unfair to ignore this and pretend that it was an equal playing field all along.
According to the Social Security Administration, Social Security in 2013 comprised 49 percent of the total income for unmarried women – including widows – age 65 and older. In comparison, Social Security benefits comprised only 35 percent of unmarried elderly men’s income and only 30 percent of elderly couples’ income.