woman and elderly man Not only dounmarried women account for a third of households aged 65–69 andtwo thirds of households aged 85 and older, many court povertythanks to caregiving interruptions weighing on pay and workrecords. (Photo: iStock)

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While Social Security once did provide better forfamily caregivers—usually women—via the spousal benefit, that's nolonger the case.

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According to a new brief from the Center for Retirement Researchat Boston College, not only are fewer women married—either theynever wed, or they divorced before the 10 years necessary toqualify for a spousal benefit—their own worker benefit is morelikely to be larger, making it less likely that they'd even collecta spousal benefit.

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But they're still losing time from the workforce for childrearing and/or caring for family members,and that means wages lost that could have boosted their own workerbenefit.

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As a result, the report says, some policy experts are suggestingthat Social Security add wage credits that wouldincrease a caregiver's earnings record and thereby raise retirementbenefits—something that's done in other developed countries.

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Not only do unmarried women account for a third of householdsaged 65–69 and two thirds of households aged 85 and older, manycourt poverty thanks to caregiving interruptions weighing on payand work records.

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One study, the report notes, “found that women ages 65–74 whospent at least 10 years as a single mother were 55 percent morelikely to be poor than continuously married mothers of similareducation and ethnicity.”

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While caregiving programs in other countries vary because ofdiffering objectives, the study looked at programs in the U.K.,Sweden and Germany. In Germany and the U.K., caregiver credits areoffered for taking care of elderly or ill relatives as well aschildren, while Sweden confines them to those who take care ofchildren—but in Sweden parents must also have work credits.

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In the U.S., it's been suggested that the number of work yearsexcluded from determining benefits be increased, and credits beprovided to parents with a child under age six for up to fiveyears. The former would cost relatively little, while the latterwould “have a more significant cost.”

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The report points out that childcare credits were found in acouple of studies to have modest effects, but would be most helpfulto women at the bottom of the lifetime earnings distribution, andin another were found to “be more effective than either currentspousal benefits or dropout years at reducing poverty forlow-income groups and minorities.”

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Costs, the report concludes, could be covered by reducingbenefits somewhat for higher earners.

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Marlene Satter

Marlene Y. Satter has worked in and written about the financial industry for decades.