Action Alert # 93 – Social Security is Stacked Against Women

If you are a partner in a marriage, you deserve a partner’s share of what is earned in that marriage! Check out the history of women and Social Security below, and develop new stories to tell your legislator and your friends.

As always, check to see if your Representative in Congress has signed on to H.R. 1205, the WEP/GPO Repeal Bill, (sort by “Alphabetical by state”) and call to say “thanks” or give them your story. Constant calling makes a difference! Here is a link to the co-signers:

History of the Government Pension Offset

When SS was instituted, it was set up only for the people who had jobs, usually men. After awhile, people realized that those men were generally married, and in retirement would need extra money for their wives.  The formula was then adjusted to provide an additional amount to his spouse, equal to 50% of the full award. It was a support for marriage. In the 70’s it was decided that the retired spouse should receive that award even if the couple were divorced, as long as they had been married for 10 years or longer.

On the face of it, that might sound fair, however, it ignores the fact that during a marriage, money earned by either party should be considered joint property—although this is not the case in many states.  An equitable division of money earned during the marriage would be a 50/50 split.  In order to calculate income fairly, the Social Security earned during the marriage by both parties should be added together and then awarded to each retiree 50/50.  We are far from that becoming the law, and our current 2/3-1/3 division of retirement income is an unfair resolution for the marriage partner who earns less. Usually the wife.

What actually happens under current law, is that, if the wife has earned her own Social Security benefits, she gets either her own or an amount that is equal to half of her husband’s, whichever is larger.  This is not dependent on any other wealth she may have, unless she has a pension for government work in a job that did not contribute to Social Security. Then she gets hit by the GPO and WEP.

Originally, government agencies were not able to participate in Social Security, so many of them developed a pension system for their workers. In the 50’s, in order for the Social Security system to gain contributors, the law was changed and public agencies were allowed to join.  Some joined, but others decided to stick with their established pension systems. Currently, more than a quarter of state and local government workers, including one third of public school teachers, are in positions where they earn pensions but not Social Security.

In the late ‘70’s, Congress decided that if a person had a pension from a public agency that didn’t pay into Social Security, they should not be eligible for full spousal Social Security benefits when they retired.  This disregarded that fact that public pensions are contributed to at a different rate than Social Security and taxed differently. The spousal and survivor benefits were supposedly for the wives who stayed home and didn’t earn their own pensions.  Congress members argued for a reduction of anything from a 100% offset to no offset at all. In 1983, they finally decided on the Government Pension Offset, requiring a loss equal to two-thirds of the separately earned public pension total.

At the time of that vote there were fewer than a dozen women in both houses of Congress, so it was principally men who made this decision. This new restrictive provision became the Government Pension Offset.  Husbands whose wives may be the primary Social Security contributor are also punished by this provision.

Social Security has been Increasingly Stacked Against Women by the Government Pension Offset

As women have had the opportunity to become better educated and been able to obtain higher-paying jobs, two-thirds of their pensions have become more likely to eliminate any chance at all for them to receive Social Security.  Since public sector jobs often require a higher contribution to a pension than one would be paying into FICA (Social Security), the payout is higher and even more likely to eliminate spousal retirement benefits.  There is no calculation that figures-in the amount of time that a spouse might have spent as a truly dependent partner in a marriage.  The wife receives no return on the contributions that were made to Social Security from their husband’s income, funds which are considered in many states, legally, joint income.

All SS benefits are often completely eliminated

Currently, approximately 500,000 retired women in this country are known to be affected by the GPO. Most of them have had ALL of their Social Security spousal or survivor benefits eliminated.

If a woman has earned a public pension of $900 a month and deserves spousal Social Security of $600, because of the GPO she will lose all of those Social Security retirement benefits. At the other end of the scale, a $3,000 teacher retirement will entirely eliminate a widow’s death benefit of $2,000 a month, cutting her income by $24,000 a year.

The Government Pension Offset punishes stay-at-home moms who, later in life, take work in some public service jobs, such as teaching.  This loss is often a surprise, since Congress did not require public employers to notify employees about these offsets until 2005. Men and women often retire without knowing their SS benefits will be reduced, often causing unnecessary and tragic economic disruptions.

Some women are doubly penalized

Women who have earned their own Social Security retirement benefits, in addition to a public pension, can lose ALL their spousal or survivor benefits and then, in addition, have their own earned benefits reduced by a second offset, the Windfall Elimination Provision.

Belief that old women can live more cheaply than men

There is still a myth that old women can live more cheaply than old men (men can’t cook, clean house, etc.), which disregards what actually happens in modern life. It undergirds the awarding of only an amount equal to half of Social Security retirement to the (usually) wife.

Women’s retirement suffers from the fact that they live longer and begin retirement with less money to live on. They have often been out of the workplace caring for others and, therefore, do not earn as much as if they had been building up a pension for their whole adult life.


The Government Pension Offset discriminates against wives and mothers! Join our cause and Repeal the GPO and the WEP!  Join us at ssfairness,com

Information in this article comes from sources you can find on our website, especially the Congressional Research Service Reports and the NCSSM report on our “More Information” page.    Go to —