How Much Does Motherhood Cost Women in Social Security Benefits?

Jan 23, 2018 / Amanda Chase, Horsesmouth Assistant Editor

The increase in female labor force participation coupled with a higher number of women reaching retirement unmarried has increased the share of women claiming Social Security benefits earned through their own job histories. But they still bear the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities, and the previous literature has provided clear evidence that motherhood reduces earnings during the childbearing and child-rearing years. What remains understudied is the extent to which mothers face lower lifetime earnings and, consequently, lower Social Security income.

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College's research found that:

  • The lifetime earnings of mothers with one child are 28 percent less than the earnings of childless women, all else equal, and each additional child lowers lifetime earnings by another 3 percent.
  • When examining Social Security benefits, the motherhood penalty is smaller than the earnings penalty. But mothers with one child still receive 16 percent less in benefits than non-mothers, and each additional child reduces benefits by another 2 percent.
  • The per-child motherhood penalty is almost negligible among women receiving spousal benefits, but mothers who receive benefits on only their own earnings histories see significantly lower Social Security income than childless working women, and for each child.

The policy implications of the findings are that mothers end up less well off in economic terms when spousal benefits are not available. With the receipt of spousal benefits likely to continue its decline, policymakers may want to consider whether to compensate women for their lost earnings due to motherhood.

Read the full report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College here.


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