Options to liberalize Social Security disabled widow(er)s benefits

J Aging Soc Policy. 2007;19(1):39-60. doi: 10.1300/J031v19n01_03.


Each month, 200,000 widows and 6,000 widowers receive Social Security disabled widow(er)s benefits, each benefit averaging about $550. Among the most economically at-risk Social Security beneficiaries, their benefits are permanently reduced. This paper reviews the legislative history of the disabled widow(er)s benefit, identifying key decisions that gave shape to this benefit. Social Security program data and six years of Current Population Survey data (March Annual Demographic Files, 1995-2000) are used to profile the economic status of current and potential disabled widows. The analysis, including comparison with other widows, provides strong evidence of economic need among disabled widows with, for example, 44% of disabled widow beneficiaries, ages 50-59, having below-poverty incomes compared with 15% of like-aged non-disabled widows. We conclude that serious consideration should be given to extending eligibility to all widow(er)s disabled before the normal retirement age; to providing a benefit equal to 100% of the deceased spouse's private insurance amount (PIA); to eliminating the unnecessarily restrictive seven-year rule; and to protecting beneficiaries from losing their eligibility to Medicaid. Even in the context of today's heated Social Security debate, we suggest that a rare opportunity may exist to garner bipartisan support for meaningful, low-cost improvements, in a benefit that primarily targets women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Disabled Persons*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicaid / organization & administration
  • Middle Aged
  • Politics
  • Poverty
  • Racial Groups
  • Social Security / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Social Security / organization & administration*
  • Widowhood / economics*
  • Widowhood / legislation & jurisprudence