Take a fresh look at your lifestyle.

The Social Security Trap

myour father didn’t believe my mother when she announced that she was leaving him. Desperate, after years of pleading for treatment for a worsening mental illness, she threatened to move if he didn’t follow his doctor’s recommendations. “Where are you going?” he asked.

As a former stay-at-home parent of five grown children, all of whom have just started careers across the country, my mother had no money of her own and no job. Given her scant employment history, it seemed unlikely that she would find a self-supporting job. Even if she did, she was rapidly approaching the end of her working years at age 58. And unlike my father, she would have little Social Security to rely on when she retires.

Anyway, she left, in a free fall to a life of almost certain poverty.

America’s pension system is stacked against moms. Women are more likely than men to work fewer hours or to stop working to raise children, and as a result, are more likely to face poverty in old age. America’s primary safety net for the elderly — Social Security — rewards long careers and high wages, but almost guarantees that parents who focus on the work of raising children receive the lowest payouts. I knew this, and as I listened to my mother recount my father’s insensitive question, I found myself wondering the same thing: where would She goes?

myour mother was in second year from a medical residency in New York City when she became pregnant with her first child. It was 1986 and the children’s program she was interning for showed no mercy for her circumstances. She worked night shifts for 80-hour weeks until the day of her delivery. I once asked her if she was on maternity leave, and she laughed – she was given two unpaid weeks to recover and get back to her normal schedule.

She didn’t go back. And although she planned to resume her education, life got in the way. My father’s income as a legal assistant didn’t come close to covering the costs of their growing family in Manhattan, so he looked elsewhere. When he found it, my parents moved to a rural part of Virginia, far from any teaching hospitals. They eventually had five children over the course of seven years, and my mother stayed at home to raise us for most of the next 18.

The time my mother is not working means she will retire with little of her own resources hardly unusual. Even if mothers don’t leave the workforce completely, they tend to earn less than their male counterparts and thus build less savings over their lifetime. This is not a problem for married women who can rely on a husband’s savings. But unmarried mothers don’t have that support. And while divorced mothers are technically entitled to half of the wealth accrued during the marriage, that’s not always the case. Until a divorce is finalized, those retirement assets belong to the person who earned them to do what they want with them — and divorce is an expensive and lengthy process. Women with limited knowledge of or access to their husband’s assets may have difficulty proving those assets exist, or getting their share before they are spent.

That’s what happened to my mother. When my father’s health deteriorated, he stopped working consistently and regularly poured into his retirement savings to keep a roof over his head, leaving little for the divorce court. By this time neither of my parents was well positioned to retire (although unlike my mother, my father could count on help from wealthy parents). But America’s social safety net was much better at getting hold of my father than my mother — because Social Security links benefits directly to income.

When you retire, the amount you receive each month in Social Security is a percentage of your average income during your 35 highest-earning years. People with a meager employment history may be entitled to a partner’s benefit equal to up to half of what their current or former spouse receives each month. By design, this system penalizes anyone who works part-time at any point in their life; chooses a lower-paying, family-friendly job; or stay at home to take care of their children. Because women are more likely to do all those things, they inevitably receive smaller payouts than men. The average retirement benefit for men is about $1,600 per month, about $300 more than the average woman receives. My mom’s spousal benefit will be about $650 a month if she waits until she’s 67 to claim it, compared to my dad’s $1,300. The fact that women retire with fewer resources and are entitled to fewer pension benefits places single, widowed and divorced mothers at a particularly high risk of poverty in old age.

for much of human history, having children was the surest way to a comfortable retirement, what is a reason? that people had so much of it until recently. Parents had five or six children in the hope that a few of them would survive long enough to care for them in old age. Children had a powerful incentive to fulfill this agreement to inherit their parents’ possessions. Economic development disrupted this arrangement by giving young adults more opportunities; countries started to publicly fund pensions and medical care for the elderly to to remedy the elderly poverty that emerged as a result.

This system of socialized elderly care is better in some ways because it ensures that the elderly are not left in need, even if they do not have children who are willing and able to care for them. But it hasn’t made any of us less dependent on children in old age. Adult children no longer pay out of pocket for their parents’ housing or medical care – they pay with their tax dollars instead. That’s why it’s so strange that Social Security is structured the way it is. The program rewards work and ignores parenting, but needs both to function. If we all worked and no one had children, our aged care system among us would collapse as we get older — and not just Social Security. Medicare, the wider economy and financial markets also depend on people having babies.

I am certainly not the first to complain about the way social security is structured. In 1993, the feminist economist Shirley Burggraf wrote: that we should “socialize” or “privatize more of the benefits” of parenthood by allocating US payroll taxes that fund Social Security directly to the parents who raised them. If it were up to me, we’d do a version of both: fund the cost of public education and grant Social Security credits to both caregivers and employees, like many European countries do. Or we could just give everyone the same retirement benefit, no matter how much they worked or how many children they had.

ANs i expectedMy mother has trouble finding steady work. She looked for a low-level job in the medical field, only to find that her decades-old medical training made her “overqualified but undercertified” to do them.

She worked for a while as a teacher at a small, private Montessori school. When that position was lifted, she was hired as a coordinator at a local police station on the condition that she survive a six-month probationary period. The job was tough: 12-hour night shifts, harking back to her days as a New York resident. She found it much harder to keep up with them when she was 62, and was fired after three months for miscoding an emergency into the computer system during her third night shift in a row.

Then the coronavirus hit, and as companies across Virginia froze or shut down their hiring processes, her leads dried up completely. In June 2020, she accepted a teaching assignment at another underfunded Montessori school in Cleveland. I think she was secretly grateful for the pandemic. Her COVID relief checks, and mine, were the only reason she was able to afford the move to Ohio. But that position didn’t work either, and she uprooted her life again to pursue a paying job that only gets more elusive as she gets older.

Then, in June of this year, my father died suddenly of a heart attack, and we learned that my mother is entitled to his Social Security benefits because my parents had been married for so long. My father was a troubled man, and his refusal to accept treatment strained my relationship with him, as did his marriage. But I loved him as any daughter would, and it makes me angry that I felt some relief from his untimely death on behalf of my mother.

During her struggle, my mother has received little sympathy from family, friends and strangers. After all, if she didn’t want to be dependent on my father in old age, she shouldn’t have had children until her career was more established, and she certainly shouldn’t have had so many. With the birth rate in the US hitting another historic low last year, many women of my generation seem to have chosen not to repeat my mother’s mistakes. I certainly don’t.

* This story originally misreported the age at which the author’s mother could claim her maximum Social Security benefits.