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Because women have been participating in greater numbers in the workforce than when the original Social Security widow’s benefit was put in place, their financial situation has improved — but the news isn’t all positive.

According to a brief from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the widow’s Social Security benefit has declined substantially, relative to the Social Security couple’s benefit. And that’s not helping widows who have little or no time in the workforce to catch up financially after their husbands die.

Widows are still poor, the report says, despite the strides women have made in the workplace. In fact, the poverty rate today for widows ages 65 and over is three times that of married women. In addition, at older ages, widows account for the majority of households.

There are several reasons for this poverty level: the loss of retirement income on the death of a spouse — not just Social Security, but any private pension benefit, which could be cut in half or even eliminated if no joint-and-survivor annuity was chosen at retirement. In addition, the decedent could have been experiencing ill health for as much as a decade before death, which would imply that household medical expenses have been higher for years, depleting retirement assets the surviving spouse needs to live on.

And because of the way the widow’s benefit is structured, it has actually fallen in value since inception, and at widowhood, the benefit can be cut by up to 50%. But household expenses won’t go down by 50% at widowhood, leaving the surviving spouse trying to get along on an inadequate benefit. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development puts the needed benefit amount at 67%, while the Census Bureau sets it even higher — at 79% — to maintain the same standard of living.

The report says that in order to give widows more parity, some policymakers favor raising the widow’s benefit to 75% of the couple’s combined monthly benefit. To compensate, it’s been suggested that the spousal benefit be reduced while both spouses are alive so that more funds are available at widowhood. That would also provide greater parity between one-earner and two-earner households. In addition, for higher-income couples, the increase in the widow benefit could be financed by reducing the benefits when both members of the couple are alive.

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