Mom and baby at a computer

Field Work

A Social Security Reform for Mom

Created in the 1930s, Social Security’s spousal benefit – it’s half of a retired husband’s benefit – was the way to compensate housewives for the work of raising children.

The world has changed, but Social Security hasn’t been modified to reflect the rise of the full-time, working mother.

Today, married women frequently have earned enough to collect Social Security based on their own employment histories, rather than a spousal benefit. The problem comes when their earnings are reduced – and ultimately their Social Security benefits – because they disrupted their career paths and sacrificed pay raises to care for their children.

Single motherhood has also become very common, which means that a wide swath of women have no access to spousal and survivor benefits at all. Due to a higher divorce rate, one in four first marriages don’t last the full 10 years that Social Security requires to qualify for these benefits.

The erosion of spousal benefits points to a future in which “large numbers of women are going to move through retirement with more disadvantages” than previous generations, concludes a recent report by the Center for Retirement Research.

This problem could be addressed if Social Security gave credit to parents for caregiving. Caregiver credits are already pervasive in Europe, including Austria, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, and they take various forms.

In this country, policy experts have proposed two different approaches to help parents with children under age six by increasing the earnings that dictate the size of their benefit checks.

The first approach would drop as much as five of their lowest-earning years from the 35-year average that Social Security uses in its standard benefit formula.  A second way to boost parents’ earnings records and benefits would be to credit them directly with wages equal to half of Social Security’s average wage index (about $25,000 in 2018) for up to five years that they’re out of the labor force.

Given the fiscal constraints facing Social Security, the cost of adding caregiver credits could be paid for by trimming benefits for the highest-earning workers.

Modernizing the program to accommodate mothers would recognize their economic value. But a bonus of the earnings credit is that it would improve Social Security’s overall adequacy by improving the financial situation of mothers, who have a greater risk of falling into poverty.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

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