My dad didn’t believe my mom when she announced that she was leaving him. Desperate, after years spent begging him to accept treatment for a worsening mental illness, she threatened to move out if he didn’t comply with his doctor’s recommendations. “Where will you go?” he asked.
A former stay-at-home parent of five grown children, all just beginning their careers around the country, my mom had no money of her own and no job. Given her sparse work history, it seemed unlikely that she’d be able to find a position that allowed her to support herself. Even if she did, at 58 years old, she was rapidly approaching the end of her working years. And unlike my father, she’d have little in the way of Social Security to rely on in retirement.
She left anyway, free-falling to a life of almost certain poverty.
America’s retirement system is stacked against mothers. Women are more likely than men to reduce their hours or drop out of the workforce to raise children and, as a result, are likelier to face poverty in old age. America’s primary safety net for the elderly—Social Security—rewards long careers and high pay, all but guaranteeing that parents who focus on the work of child-rearing receive the smallest payouts. I knew this, and as I listened to my mom recount my father’s callous question, I found myself wondering the same thing: Where would she go?
My mom was in the second year of a medical residency in New York City when she got pregnant with her first child. It was 1986, and the pediatric program for which she interned showed no mercy for her circumstances. She worked 80-hour weeks made up of overnight shifts right up until the day she gave birth. I once asked her if she had maternity leave, and she laughed—she was given two unpaid weeks to recover and return to her regular schedule.
She didn’t go back. And although she had planned to resume her training, life got in the way. My father’s income as a paralegal didn’t come close to covering the expenses of their growing family in Manhattan, so he looked for work elsewhere. When he found it, my parents moved to a rural part of Virginia, far from any teaching hospitals. They ended up having five kids over the course of seven years, and my mom stayed at home to raise us for most of the next 18.
My mother’s time away from the workforce means she’ll enter retirement with few of her own resources, which is hardly uncommon. Even when mothers don’t leave the workforce entirely, they tend to earn less than their male counterparts and thus accrue smaller savings over their lifetime. This isn’t a problem for married women who can rely on a spouse’s savings. But unmarried mothers have no such support. And although divorced mothers are technically entitled to half of the assets accrued during the marriage, it doesn’t always shake out that way. Until a divorce is finalized, those retirement assets belong to the person who earned them to do with as they please—and divorce is an expensive and lengthy process. Women with limited knowledge of or access to their spouse’s assets may have trouble proving that those assets exist, or getting their share before they’ve been spent.
That’s what happened to my mother. As my father’s health worsened, he stopped working consistently and regularly dipped into his retirement savings to keep a roof over his head, leaving little for the divorce court to distribute. By then, neither of my parents were well positioned for retirement (though my dad, unlike my mom, could count on help from wealthy parents). But America’s social safety net did a far better job of catching my dad than my mom—because Social Security ties benefits directly to income.
When you retire, the amount you receive in Social Security each month is a percentage of your average income during your 35 highest-earning years. Those with meager work histories may be entitled to a spousal benefit equivalent to, at most, half of what their current or former spouse receives each month. By design, this system penalizes anyone who, at any point in their life, works part-time; chooses a lower-paying, family-friendly job; or stays home to care for 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 a month, roughly $300 more than the average woman receives. My mom’s spousal benefit will amount to about $650 a month if she waits until she’s 67 to claim it, compared with my father’s $1,300. The fact that women enter retirement with fewer resources and are entitled to fewer retirement benefits puts 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 path to a comfortable retirement, which is one reason that, until fairly recently, people had so many of them. Parents had five or six kids in the hopes that a couple of them would survive long enough to care for them in their old age. Children had a powerful incentive to honor this bargain in order to inherit their parents’ possessions. Economic development disrupted this arrangement by giving young adults more opportunities; countries began publicly funding pensions and medical care for the elderly to remedy the elder poverty that emerged as a result.
This system of socialized elder care is better in some ways, because it ensures that elderly people aren’t left destitute even if they don’t have children 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 kids, our elder-care system would collapse under us as we aged—and not just Social Security. Medicare, the broader economy, and financial markets depend on people having babies too.
I’m 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 more of the costs” of parenting or “privatize more of the benefits,” by awarding Americans’ payroll taxes that fund Social Security directly to the parents who raised them. If I had my way, we’d do some version of both: publicly fund the costs of child-rearing, and award Social Security credits to caregivers as well as workers, as many European countries do. Or we could simply give everyone the same retirement benefit, regardless of how much they worked or how many children they had.
As I expected, my mother has had difficulty finding steady work. She looked for low-level employment in the medical field, only to discover that her decades-old medical degree left her “overqualified but under-certified” to do them.
She worked as a teacher at a small, private Montessori school for a bit. When that position was eliminated, she was hired as a dispatcher at a local police station on the condition that she survive a probationary six-month training period. The job was tough: 12-hour overnight shifts, harkening back to her days as a resident in New York. She found it much more difficult to keep up with them at 62, and was let go after three months for incorrectly coding an emergency into the computer system during her third night shift in a row.
Then the coronavirus hit, and as businesses across Virginia froze their hiring processes or shut down altogether, her leads dried up entirely. In June of 2020, she accepted a teaching position at another underfunded Montessori school, in Cleveland. I think, secretly, she was grateful for the pandemic. Her COVID relief checks, and mine, were the sole reason she could afford the move to Ohio. But that position didn’t work out either, and she uprooted her life once again to chase gainful employment that grows only more elusive as she ages.
Then, in June of this year, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack, and we learned that my mother is entitled to collect his Social Security benefits because my parents were married for so long. My father was a troubled man, and his refusal to accept treatment strained my relationship with him just as it did his marriage. But I loved him as any daughter would, and it angers me that I felt any relief at his premature death on my mother’s behalf.
Throughout her struggles, my mother has received little sympathy from family, friends, and strangers alike. After all, if she didn’t want to be dependent on my dad in old age, she shouldn’t have had kids before her career was better established, and certainly shouldn’t have had so many of them. With the U.S. birth rate having reached yet another historic low last year, many women in my generation seem to have elected not to repeat my mother’s mistakes. I certainly won’t.
* This story originally misstated the age at which the author’s mother could claim her maximum Social Security spousal benefit.