The U.S. Social Security system awards monthly Social Security payments to persons who did nothing more than be in a marriage for at least ten years. The value of the monthly “spousal” Social Security benefit is basically one-half that of the monthly Social Security benefit of the earning spouse. The spousal benefit isn’t deducted from the earning spouse’s benefit. The spousal benefit draws from the aggregate pool of Social Security funds that earners, including single persons, contributed.
Why are persons awarded Social Security payments just for being in a marriage? One view is that the spousal benefit is for unpaid work within the home. But single persons have to do work within the home in addition to work outside the home. If spousal benefits compensate for unpaid housework, a spousal benefit should be added to single persons’ earnings-based Social Security benefits in recognition of single persons’ housework.
Why is the spousal benefit proportional to the earning spouse’s earnings? The spousal benefit isn’t a fixed benefit based on the average Social Security earnings of persons who do paid work as housekeepers. Non-earning persons married to high earners get higher Social Security benefits than non-earning persons married to low earners. Presumably non-earners married to high earners also get more financial benefits through the marriage itself. Single persons have no spouse from whom to get any benefits. Social Security spousal benefits re-enforce household inequality.
Why does divorce and re-marriage allow an earning spouse to confer additional Social Security benefits? By getting divorced and remarried, a Social Security earner can endow up to five persons with Social Security spousal benefits. That’s essentially a Social Security system subsidy for divorce and remarriage. Single persons cannot confer spousal benefits on others even if they make the same contributions to Social Security as a person on her or his fifth marriage.
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