Social Security:

Issues Involving Benefit Equity for Working Women

HEHS-96-55: Published: Apr 10, 1996. Publicly Released: Apr 10, 1996.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined whether married women and widows were being treated fairly under the Social Security system, focusing on: (1) how economic and demographic trends may affect women's future benefits; and (2) past proposals that have addressed these concerns.

GAO noted that: (1) the Social Security Act is gender neutral when it comes to awarding individual retirement benefits; (2) women are more likely to qualify for spousal and survivor benefits and experience dual entitlement limits because of their lower lifetime earnings and longer life expectancies; (3) the monthly benefits for a two-earner couple are one-third less than those of a one-earner couple with the same demographics and lifetime earnings; (4) the survivor of a one-earner couple receives 67 percent of the total benefits received when both spouses were alive; (5) the survivor of a two-earner couple can receive between 50 percent and 67 percent of combined pre-death benefits; (6) a retired married person is often eligible for larger benefits as a spouse or survivor than as a retired worker; (7) an individual's retirement contributions do not necessarily increase his retirement benefits, but may provide disability coverage and family survivor coverage; (8) people with lower lifetime earnings and fewer Social Security contributions receive more Social Security benefits; (9) the issue of benefit fairness is likely to become more widespread as women spend more time in the workforce and increase their earnings; (10) the earnings sharing proposal combines the covered earnings of a husband and wife for each year that the couple is married and credits half of the combined total to each spouse's Social Security earnings; (11) the double-decker plan provides a flat-rate benefit for qualified beneficiaries and a proportional plan based on beneficiaries' lifetime covered earnings; and (12) SSA has not changed the way it administers retirement benefits because of the potential program costs, inequity issues, and administrative burdens.

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