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Women's Stake in Social Security

Women are the majority (55 percent) of adult beneficiaries, collecting Social Security as retired or disabled workers, as wives, and as widows. They make up 56 percent of Social Security beneficiaries age 62 and older, and 68 percent of beneficiaries age 85 and older. Women pay 41 percent of Social Security taxes because they earn less than men do, and they collect approximately 49 percent of the benefits because they live longer than men, on average.

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 2010, 23 percent of unmarried women over 65 were receiving their own private pensions outside of Social Security, compared to 27 percent of unmarried men the same age. For all 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 comprises 50 percent of total income for unmarried women, including widows, compared to 36 percent of total income for unmarried men. Forty-eight percent of unmarried women over 65 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 by eight years. A 65-year-old woman in 2011 is expected to live an additional 20.4 years, on average, compared to 17.8 years for men. Therefore, the spousal and survivor benefits are key parts of the program. In 2010, approximately 22 million women were over the age of 65, compared with about 17 million men, or a ratio of 129 women for every hundred men, according to data from the Social Security Administration. Of those 75 years and older, the ratio of women to men increases to 151 women for every hundred men.

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.

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* The views of NASI members are their own and not an official position of the National Academy of Social Insurance or its funders.