This is the first post in a series I am writing as a blogging fellow for the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of more than 270 national and state organizations dedicated to preserving and strengthening Social Security.

Do you have a mother?

Is she over 65?

How is she set financially?

How would she fare if she was entirely on her own?

Now answer that question and take her Social Security out of the equation. How would she fare if she was entirely on her own?

You may not realize it, but Social Security is the single most effective program to keep women out of poverty in their retirement years that the nation has ever created.

Here are some facts about women and Social Security that you may not know, but should.

  • 26% of women aged 65-69 are reliant upon Social Security for virtually all of their income (90% or more) and that number climbs as women age.
  • Although women are more reliant on Social Security to provide their basic needs in retirement, men receive benefits that are about 25% more than those of women. The average benefit for a woman is around $12,000 per year, while for men it is about $16,000 per year.
  • This is especially important for women, because far more American women than men — 11% versus 7% — lived in poverty in 2009 (the last year for which complete numbers are available.)
  • It becomes even more important for people who live alone. When older people live alone, the likelihood that they live in poverty jumps dramatically, to 17% for women and to 12% for men.
  • Minority women are hit especially hard, with more than 20% of African-American, Hispanic and Native American women 65 and over living in poverty. The poverty rate is 8% for non-Hispanic white females in this age group, and 15% for Asian women.
  • Without Social Security, one half of all women over 65 and two-thirds of women over 65 who live alone would live in poverty.
  • 3.1. million children received Social Security survivors benefits after losing the support of a parent to death or disability, and those benefits lifted 1.1 million of those children out of poverty.

Since Social Security became the law of the land in 1935, it has frequently been the only thing standing between women and the proverbial poor house, and that is not a pattern that shows any signs of changing any time soon.

While the gender-iniquities that were part of the program at it’s inception have been righted, much of the labor performed by women is uncompensated. Women still sacrifice large amounts of their prime earning time to provide care for young children, aging parents and eventually young grandchildren. This negatively impacts the amount of monthly benefit they receive in retirement.  

Schemes to divert Social Security contributions into so-called “individually held private accounts” would hit women especially hard, because returns on such accounts would depend on volatile markets and would not have COLAs built in to safeguard against inflation or provide spousal and dependent benefits. And that uncompensated labor that already impacts women’s benefits in the current system? Privatization schemes would devastate any hope for economic security in retirement, because without the shared risk pool that Social Security represents, many women — especially those who took a time out of the work force to raise families and take care of aged or ailing family members — would quickly outlive their assets and be destitute.

Women are not worthless, nor is the labor we provide to our families, not merely free-of-charge, but at great detriment to our own best interest — and the older I get, the crankier I get about the fact that we are discounted, dismissed and disrespected with distressing frequency. Who can forget Alan Simpson firing off a condescending email to Ashley Carson, the executive director of the Older Women’s League, sneering that Social Security had “become a milk cow with 310 million tits” and finishing with the admonition to “Call when you get honest work!”

Instead of dismissal and disrespect, why not look at Social Security and ways to strengthen it through women’s eyes? Not only because we tend to be especially bent on equitable, mutually beneficial solutions, but because a system that works well for American women will be a system that works well for all Americans.


Women and Social Security: Key Facts published by the National Women’s Law Center, January 2011


The National Jobs For All Coalition website.