More and more adults are entering their golden years alone, either through gray divorce, or by choosing to stay unmarried, and for older women, Social Security benefits often aren't enough to stave off poverty.
Bowling Green State University sociologists Drs. I-Fen Lin and Susan Brown, along with Ph.D. student Anna Hammersmith, used data from the 2010 Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to look at a diverse range of marital biographies and examine three indicators of economic well-being: Social Security receipt, Social Security benefit levels, and poverty status. "Marital Biography, Social Security Receipt, and Poverty" is in press at the journal Research on Aging.
The researchers restricted the sample to HRS respondents and their spouses/partners who were age 63 and older in 2010 due to Social Security eligibility rules. In total, the analysis consisted of 9,649 individuals.
Lin and Brown found gray divorced women suffered the most economically, with a whopping 27 percent of them classified as poor. Just 11 percent of gray divorced men are in poverty. Never-married women also suffer economically in their later years, with 25 percent living in poverty.
"Gray divorced and never married women face considerable economic instability. Their Social Security benefits are typically low and their poverty rates are quite high, indicating Social Security alone is not sufficient to prevent them from falling into poverty. By comparison, those who were widowed late in life are the most advantaged singles," said Brown.
Lin and Brown point out that prior research on economic well-being in later life did not take into account gray divorce, which is on the rise. "Those who divorce later have fewer years of working life remaining and may not be able to fully recover economically from a gray divorce. In fact, gray divorce appears to diminish wealth more than an earlier divorce," according to Lin.
Couples who divorce can access Social Security spousal benefits provided they were married at least 10 years and do not remarry before age 60. But the share of divorced women who qualify for spousal benefits is projected to decline in the coming years. Recent studies show lowering this 10-year marriage rule by just a few years would substantially reduce poverty levels among low-income divorced women.
The researchers point out that Social Security was designed during an era when most elders were married, a scenario that is less common today and is likely to be even less typical in the future. In fact, the decline in marriage is linked to reduced spousal and survivor benefit eligibility for Social Security among women.
"Given the broader retreat from marriage, fewer older women may be eligible for spousal or survivor benefits, whether because they divorced less than 10 years into their marriage, they did not remarry, or they never married in the first place," Brown noted.
There are also concerns about the expected rise in the number of adults experiencing gray divorce due to the aging of the population, which would result in a larger share of singles at risk for economic hardship.
"In short, more older Americans are economically insecure, without an adequate safety net to respond to major life events, such as the onset of disability or chronic disease, that can be financially devastating. Future research should address how marital biographies are linked to the health and well-being of older adults," said Lin.
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