Why married women deserve Social Security benefits

From 1947, a week worth's of woman's work.

(From 1947, a week worth’s of woman’s work)

James Taranto highlights a couple of women, Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell, who complain that it’s unfair that married women, when widowed, get to receive social security benefits that tie into their husband’s social security “earnings.”  Here, per Taranto, is the heart of Arnold’s and Campbell’s argument:

“More than 1,000 laws provide overt legal or financial benefits to married couples,” they complain. “Marital privileging marginalizes the 50 percent of Americans who are single. . . . Marital privilege pervades nearly every facet of our lives.” Income-tax liability is generally (though not always) higher for unmarried earners; married workers more or less automatically have access to spouses’ health insurance; couples can share individual retirement accounts, and so forth.


That of course begs the question. Any policy that differentiates among individuals is “discriminatory,” and not all discrimination is unjust or irrational. One of Arnold and Campbell’s examples–Social Security–illustrates the point quite nicely.

If a single person dies without children, her money will–must–go into the system to be provided to whomever [sic] needs it most, which is good because that was the original intent of Social Security. However, if a married person dies, the money can be routed back to her family. This is good for the married person, but fails to account for the important people in singles’ lives.

“Social Security privileges marrieds in many ways,” the duo complain. “For example, [a] married woman could receive up to 50 percent of her husband’s benefits while her husband is alive.” Wait, that sounds like a cost of marriage to the hubby. “Spouses can also receive 100 percent of their dead spouse’s benefits, if the deceased’s benefits are higher than the recipient’s would have been.”

As one would expect, Taranto quickly exposes the logical flaws in their argument, one that flows from a fundamental misunderstanding about social security:

The bottom line is that a married woman is likely to collect considerably more in benefits than a single woman with the same lifetime income. The difference runs into six figures in the hypothetical example Arnold and Campbell devise. That sounds unjust: Why shouldn’t benefits be fully concomitant with the money one paid into the system?

Because that’s not how Social Security actually works. Although it is often misunderstood as an insurance plan, in reality it is a pay-as-you-go welfare program. That is to say that tomorrow’s retirees depend for their benefits not on their own contributions but on tomorrow’s workers. If you retire single and childless, that means you’re living off the labor of other people’s children. Why shouldn’t you get a smaller benefit check than those who accepted the personal and financial burdens of raising those workers?

Taranto is absolutely right about the issue from the social security end, but he could have made a further argument — namely, that Arnold and Campbell are being utterly sexist insofar as they’re denigrating a woman’s very real financial contribution to a marriage.

The old male chauvinist pig argument was that, because women made no income, they actually contributed nothing of value economically, either to the marriage or to society as a whole.  The first feminists were quick to point out that this is a fallacy, as the stay-at-home mother’s contributions do, in fact, have a very real valuable.  If mom were to vanish suddenly, and there was no female relative to step in to fill the gap, the father would have to hire someone to shop, cook, clean, and, most importantly, raise the children.

Children playing

Merely feeding children is not enough.  In an America with large swathes developed after the automobile came along, and in one dominated by media-fed fears of child-snatching, the caregiver spends an inordinate amount of time ferrying children about, whether to school, to friends (if you want them to be marginally socialized), to mandatory “volunteer” activities, to doctor’s appointments, or to sports and other extracurricular activities.  Additionally, when the children are little — and maybe even more when they’re big — they need to be supervised so that they don’t get into mischief.  Their associates need to be vetted (druggie or good kid?) and their emotional and intellectual development overseen.  Children are hard work.  There’s pleasure involved, but, boy!, is there work.

Many women work outside of the home, with their income going to pay for childcare.  This works only if the working mother’s income is sufficiently high that, after the household and childcare fees are met, and after the woman pays all her taxes (including Social Security withholding) there’s something left over.  Otherwise, she’s just working so that she and her husband can pay someone else to raise the children.


The core fact here is that raising children and running the household is a job.  There are two ways to view this when looking at a married couple.  Either the man and the woman are a partnership, with each having a different function, but with all profits derived from the enterprise, in the form of the husband’s salary, covering the partnership as a whole.  Under this view, as a contributing member of the functioning partnership, the mother is clearly entitled to a share of the Social Security payments, even though her side of the partnership consisted, not of working outside of the home but, instead, of enabling her husband to earn a cash income that’s subject to social security withholding.

A less nice, but still accurate, way of looking at social security payments and stay-at-home moms is that the husband essentially employs the wife.  He earns the money, and he gives it to her to provide services such as housekeeping and child-rearing.  In her absence, he’d have to pay someone else — in cold, hard, taxed cash.  Because she is an employee, her earnings are subject to Social Security withholding, something that the government sees to by taking those withholding from the husband.  After all, if it wasn’t for his children, she could be out there earning money.

Husband's funeral

It’s perfectly true that not all women have children or that there are women with children who cheerfully work outside the home.  On the bell curve, though, both of those situations occupy the long-tailed margins.  The reality is that married women mostly have children, and that these women mostly provide child and household care, and that, by doing so, these women mostly see their personal income drop, even as they contribute to their husband’s income on behalf of the marital estate.  This last fact means that they’ve earned Social Security benefits as certainly as their husband did.  And these women certain deserve the payments after their husband’s death because their withdrawal from the labor market to benefit the family means that, once hubby dies (and hubby is statistically likely to die first), they no longer have much, if any, income-earning capacity.

Arnold and Campbell couldn’t be more sexist than when they demean stay-at-home moms by arguing that their contribution to the martial partnership is valueless and that it shouldn’t be compensated in the form of repayment of the money the government forcibly wrested away from the family unit.

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  • Spartacus

    “Either the man and the woman are a partnership, with each having a different function, but with all profits derived from the enterprise, in the form of the husband’s salary, covering the partnership as a whole.  Under this view, as a contributing member of the functioning partnership, the mother is clearly entitled to a share of the Social Security payments, even though her side of the partnership consisted, not of working outside of the home but, instead, of enabling her husband to earn a cash income that’s subject to social security withholding.”
    Spoken like a specialist in business litigation.  😉

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Robert Arvanitis tried to leave a comment, but Word Press rebuffed him. He emailed it to me, and I pass it on to you:

    Spartacus is correct on “business litigator.”

    But that’s appropriate, since the Left has attacked our values and tried mightily to undercut the cultural wisdom of the millennia.

    So yes, we litigate back.

    The deeper issue is to recognize the inherent contradictions of the left-agenda. We have progressive tax rates. Say it’s 10% on the first $50,000 (median), and 20% on the next $50,000. Then consider the following cases:

    · Two unrelated individuals at median income. Government takes $5,000 from each, or $10,000 total.
    · Married couple, each make $50,000. What should government take?
    · Married couple; one supports the home and the other makes $100,000. What should government take?!

    If you’re befuddled, then you are a liberal.

    If you know the right answer is a flat tax to avoid this stupidity, you are correct.

    If you instinctively want to protect the married pairings, then you have not completely erased the cultural wisdom. So you are now faced with the question “OK, but WHY is marriage important to society?”

    If you further realize that the answer is “to create the next generation” then there is indeed hope for you.

    If instead of all that you continue to grasp at the redistributionist agenda without regard to the future, you are a hopelessly lost leftist, and have no business borrowing from the future to subsidize current consumption.

  • Spartacus

    1) Just to clarify, my previous comment was intended as a compliment.
    2) Mr. Arvanitis — I will agree with you that a flat tax would be preferable to what we have now.  But would you agree with me that the 16th Amendment is the source of much growth in government and other mischief, and really, it would be better if the IRS only processed tax returns from 50 taxpayers, with names like Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, etc.?  Just determine how much spending each state has committed itself to in the past year, multiply by a certain multiplier that would be uniform for all states, and that is how much they would remit to DC.  Strong incentive for states to pinch their pennies, and also would help turn us back into a federal system rather than a national one.  Politically difficult to achieve under normal circumstances, but fear not, abnormal circumstances are headed our way.

  • Danny Lemieux

    The line that I like to use is: “You can’t argue against laws and regulations that make it easier to raise kids and simultaneously wonder why there aren’t enough kids to pay for your old age benefits”.
    In a similar vein, I make a related argument against gay marriage: “marriage isn’t about giving rights and benefits to adults, it’s about creating conditions that are conducive to raising healthy, productive children for the good of society”.

  • Robert Arvanitis

    Seems we have the same principles and values.  So let us now talk of methods of implementation.
    The great failing of the Articles of Confederation was that it left the federal government dependent upon the stats for revenue.  But the purpose of Union (and hence the Constitution) was to let the federal government  draw upon the citizens directly, rather than indirectly through the several states, over which they (the Federal government) had no authority.
    That said, the justifiable PURPOSES of the Federal government were limited to those enumerated — defend the borders, maintain civil order and enforce contracts.
    So we are at the same place, with complementary operations to implement.

  • Spartacus

    I guess I see this as taking us back to 1912, rather than 1788 — pre-16th Amendment, but with the Constitution well-established.  That said, you do make an excellent point, and it is an interesting question how to compel states to remit their portion of the tab without overly compelling them.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    It will be enough to simply have the individual decide what portion of their taxes, if anything, goes to which government funding, and have it all electronically tracked like FedEx does with packages. It is not that it can’t be done… it is that the power elites in DC know that their ponzi schemes and skimming off the top would stop if they were to implement such systems.
    If someone doesn’t like guns, abortion, police, or the military, they can say that they will pay 100% of their taxes, but none of it is to be directed towards those programs. So long as Congress decides which programs are funded, they have infinite power and time to bribe whichever politician or voter, is in their reach.

  • Mike Devx

    Ymar says (#7) : It will be enough to simply have the individual decide what portion of their taxes, if anything, goes to which government funding
    I’ve tried several times in the past to come up with any scheme that would actually allow citizens to direct their taxes to specific areas of government funding.  I’ve never been able to do it.  I think the instant you actually put pencil to paper and try to devise anything that is actually a practical plan, you run into insurmountable difficulties.  I think it’s impossible.
    Start with the basics: You’d need a checklist of areas of government funding.  How many items?  Too few, and it’s too blunt an instrument.  You could use as a starting point a checklist of Executive Cabinet positions.  HHS (Health and human services)?  Far too blunt to be of any use whatsoever.  Perhaps five subcategories there.  And now we are already at too fine an instrument.  Then consider: You check items off on your list.  Do you apply an equal percentage to each?  Are you going to weight them? 
    From Wikipedia: In 2011, 234 million tax returns were filed allowing the IRS to collect $2.4 trillion out of which $384 billion were attributed to mistake or fraud.
    Then consider the actual government apparatus itself, *how* things actually get funded.  It’s nice to think that a simple little computer programmer doing a numerical multiplexer:  234 million inputs feed, say, 100 outputs (the checklist).  Within each of those “checklist areas”, you have thousands of programs.  You’d have to invent from scratch a system for supplying each individual program.  The weight of bureaucracy, and its inevitable problems itself, required to implement such a system compared to its effectiveness seems to me to be impossible to make worthwhile…

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    It’s no more impossible than credit cards showing who paid for what from whom.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    The problem is really the paper. It’s not electronically tracked, has no security codes attached to it, and basically, just goes into somebody’s segmented code and is inputed by hand. Very prone to both interference and human errors. Such as when the IRS gets the “wrong taxes” and has to refund more back than it intended, somehow.
    It would need more than a computer program and it would need more than the IRS> It would need a private company, which is more than the sum of both the IRS< Congress, government, the SEC, and the voters combined.

  • Ron19

    Every month, 1, 2, or 4 updates are made to tens of millions of Social Security accounts by employers and the government.
    Every day, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of stock transaction are recorded.  Same for bank accounts.
    The computer sysytem hardware and database software are available to create this kind of system.
    However, even IBM has had an awful time trying to implement a smaller computerised Air Traffic Control system for the government!