Making claims as workers or wives: The distribution of social security benefits

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63 Scopus citations


U.S. Social Security benefits are widely recognized as redistributive across class, race, and gender lines. However, this assessment is based on the impact of retired worker (contributory) benefits. The distributional effects of noncontributory spouse and widow benefits, through which two-thirds of older women make their claims, are markedly different. Class-based theorists examining the stratifying effects of welfare state programs focus on sources of bias that are disadvantageous to lower-class workers while feminist accounts highlight sources of bias that are disadvantageous to women. Using published and unpublished summary data made available by the Social Security Administration, I demonstrate that while historical sources of gender bias linked to contributory benefits have dissipated somewhat, race, class and marital status biases linked to noncontributory benefits persist. Ultimately, benefits linked to marital status are potentially as exclusionary for some groups of women as are benefits linked to contributions for other groups. I reject arguments that spouse and widow benefits may be justified as rewards for unpaid domestic work or as mechanisms to target the poor. Noncontributory benefits are unrelated to domestic labor and systematically are most advantageous to middle-class and upper-class married White women who have never contributed to the system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)449-465
Number of pages17
JournalAmerican sociological review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1996
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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