Social Security Reform:

Implications for Women

T-HEHS-99-52: Published: Feb 3, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 3, 1999.

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Cynthia Maher Fagnoni
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed: (1) how women currently fare under social security; (2) how they might be affected by some of the proposed changes in benefits to restore solvency; and (3) how women might fare under a system restructured to include individual accounts.

GAO noted that: (1) women have benefited significantly from the social security program; (2) many women who work are advantaged by the progressive benefit formula that provides larger relative benefits to those with lower lifetime earnings; (3) women who did not work or had low lifetime earnings and who were married benefit from the program's spousal and survivor benefit provisions; (4) however, women typically receive lower monthly benefits than men because benefits are based on earnings and the number of years worked; (5) any across-the-board benefit cuts to restore solvency might fall disproportionately on women as a group because they rely more heavily on social security income than men; (6) other types of reform approaches can have positive or negative effects on women depending on how the reforms are designed; (7) restructuring social security to include individual accounts also will likely have different effects on men and women; (8) because women earn less than men, contributions of a fixed percentage of earnings would put less into women's individual retirement accounts; (9) available evidence indicates that women also tend to invest more conservatively than men, and thus would likely earn smaller returns on their accounts, although they would bear less risk; (10) in addition, how such accounts are structured will be extremely important to women; (11) for example, whether individuals will be required to purchase annuities with the proceeds of their accounts at retirement and how the annuities are priced could affect women quite differently from men; and (12) how benefits might be distributed to divorcees and how accounts are transferred to survivors could affect the retirement income of some elderly women.

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