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Treasury Notes

 The Economic Security of Older Women

By: Karen Dynan
1/11/2017

Today, the Office of Economic Policy at the Treasury Department released the fourth in a series of briefs exploring the economic security of American households. This brief​ focuses on the economic security of older women. In this brief, we ask: Are older women at greater risk of poverty or being unable to manage their expenses than other populations? Are there specific groups of women at risk? What are the implications for policy?

Compared with men, we find that elderly women are much more likely to be economically insecure. We attribute this finding to a variety of factors. Women live longer than men, meaning they have to finance a longer retirement and that they are more likely to reach an age in which they must finance disability costs.  In addition, women tend to have lower lifetime earnings than men. Finally, women are more likely than men to live alone and thus are less likely to live with someone with whom to share economic risks. 

In this brief, we assess economic insecurity in a number of ways but focus on two measures: the poverty rate and the “overextended” rate—the share of the population whose spending exceeds what it can afford based on its income and annuitized wealth. We view this latter measure as reflecting economic insecurity, because elderly women who are overextended and on fixed incomes must reduce spending to live within their means. For women with low levels of consumption, this could entail cutting back on necessities like food and medicine. Comparing different measures of economic security, we find that the overextended share of the female population is 29 percent, far higher than the poverty rate of 12 percent. The implication is that economic insecurity is broader than the poverty rate implies.

We find that single women are far more economically insecure on all measures than married women and that widowhood dramatically increases the likelihood of becoming insecure relative to remaining married. Widowhood is associated with a large loss in income and wealth; and while widows experience a large drop in household spending at widowhood, they continue to cut spending at rates faster than single women and married households. 

We also find that disability is associated with economic insecurity. The median disabled woman’s household assets (including non-liquid assets like housing) are sufficient only to finance six months in a nursing home, and the median disabled woman’s household has financial wealth sufficient to cover less than half a month of nursing home expenses.

Women who remain married throughout their elderly years, on the other hand, do not experience high rates of economic insecurity. And holding constant marital status and disability status, we do not observe sharp increases in economic insecurity as women age. Notably, even though the poverty rate rises for women as they age, the overextended rate falls as women rely more on wealth to support themselves.  

All told, our findings suggest that public policy should focus on specific risks associated with aging, particularly living alone and living with a disability. We note that married couples might benefit from shifting more of their wealth from periods in which both spouses are alive to periods in which only one spouse is alive. Such an outcome could be accomplished in the private sector with greater use of financial products with survivor benefits. Experts have also suggested ways that public policy could help address the challenge, such as by restructuring Social Security to increase survivor benefits. Looking at disability, we note that while Medicaid and private long-term care insurance provide protection for some households, there is still a large unmet need that is apparent when looking at the economic security risks posed by disability.

Karen Dynan is the Assistant Secretary of Economic Policy at the Department of the Treasury.

Posted in:  Economic Policy
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