Women are the majority of adult beneficiaries, collecting Social Security as retired or disabled workers, and as wives and widows. They make up 56 percent of Social Security beneficiaries age 62 and older, and 66 percent of beneficiaries age 85 and older.
Women spend fewer years in the workforce because they are more likely to be at home when their children are young, and they typically earn less than men when they are in the work force. This means that they are less likely to qualify for a private pension, and if they do, it usually will be smaller than the pension earned by men. In 2014, 32 percent of unmarried women over 65 were receiving their own private pensions outside of Social Security, compared to 34 percent of unmarried men over 65. For these reasons, Social Security serves as an important protection for women against economic insecurity in old age.
Many women depend heavily on Social Security as a source of income in retirement. For people over age 65, Social Security accounts for 47 percent of total income for unmarried women, including widows, compared to 34 percent of total income for unmarried men. Forty-six percent of unmarried women over 65 receiving benefits rely on Social Security for nearly all (90 percent or more) of their income.
The average married woman receiving Social Security benefits will outlive her husband. A 65-year-old woman in 2015 is expected to live an additional 21.5 years, on average, compared to 19.1 years for men. Therefore, the spousal and survivor benefits are key parts of the program for women. In 2016, approximately 27 million women were over the age of 65, compared with about 22 million men, or a ratio of 126 women for every hundred men, according to data from the Census Bureau.
Because women are often lower-paid than men, they benefit from Social Security’s progressive benefit formula, which replaces a larger proportion of past wages for lower-earning workers.