Q: I am so upset by these crybaby women who gripe and complain about not getting enough money from their husband’s Social Security accounts. I am the one with an ax to grind. I worked hard all my life. And I can’t get a nickel on my husband’s Social Security record. Yet all these stay-at-home women rake in the dough from their sugar daddy husbands and then they have the gall to complain it’s not enough money! What can possibly be fair about that? Why can’t I get any of my husband’s Social Security?
A: Mom? Is that you? Are you still turning over in your grave because you just can’t let this go?
OK, so that wasn’t my mother with a heaven-sent albeit spite-filled message from the afterlife. But it was just another example of the thousands of irate emails I’ve received over the years from working women who are upset that they oftentimes can’t get any benefits from their husband’s Social Security record.
And then they find it doubly irritating that a woman who didn’t work outside the home gets to collect full Social Security spousal benefits from her husband or ex-husband’s account.
I’m not an anthropologist. Nor am I a psychiatrist. But I’m sure folks in those professions would be able to find all kinds of underlying causes for the resentment felt by so many working women towards their gender counterparts who, for whatever reason, spent their lifetimes as full-time mothers and wives.
My mother went through the last 25 years of her life carrying such a grudge. I’ll share her story, which I think will shed a little light on this topic.
My parents came from the wrong side of the economic tracks and spent their lives trying to inch their way into the middle class. My dad was a janitor. But that job simply didn’t bring enough money into our household. So my mom always worked outside the home. She spent much of her adult life doing clerical work in a hospital. She took time off to have four kids. But within a year of the birth of each of those kids, she was always back to work to help pay the rent and buy groceries. There was little money left over for what most people would consider the good things in life.
But speaking of those good things, our neighbors behind us across the alley were living the American dream. (That alley was like the proverbial “tracks.” It divided the rich side of town from the poor side.) In their household, the husband and father was the vice president of a local bank. They also had four kids — and his wife was a full-time stay-at-home mom. She never had to work outside the home because her husband’s salary brought in more than enough money to keep them living in comfort. I, and my brothers and sisters, enjoyed playing with the banker’s kids. (They had really nice toys and stuff!) But our parents never mingled and never visited one another. They simply ran in different economic circles.
Long story short: Both the husbands eventually died. The banker’s widow (she was over 65 at the time) started getting a rather substantial widow’s benefit from Social Security. But my mom got a very small monthly widow’s check from my dad’s account. And that’s because she was getting her own Social Security retirement benefit, and that benefit offset her widow’s payments — dollar for dollar.
Because of their respective economic circumstances, the banker’s widow received a significantly higher monthly Social Security benefit than the combined payments my mom was getting. And this simply irritated my mother to no end. By this time, I was working for the Social Security Administration, and if she asked me this once, she asked this a thousand times: “Why is THAT WOMAN across the alley, a woman who never worked a day in her life, getting more money than I am — a woman who has spent 40 years working at a job and at home?”
I tried to explain to my mom that it all had to do with two of the basic concepts of Social Security. The first essentially says this: The more you pay into the system, the more you get out. And the second has to do with the reason behind spousal benefits — those benefits were always intended to be paid to women who were “dependent” on their husband’s income.
The banker’s wife was just that: a “dependent.” She depended on her husband’s salary while he was alive. So once he died, she was dependent on his Social Security.
My mom, on the other hand, had her own job and her own income. And because of that job, she received her own pension from the hospital where she worked and her own Social Security retirement benefit once she retired. Because my dad’s Social Security benefit was slightly higher than my mom’s retirement check, she did get a small widow’s supplement from Social Security.
But my mom never bought that argument. She would say: “Your dad worked all his life, and I should be getting his Social Security now that he’s gone.” In other words, she wanted her own full retirement benefit and a full widow’s benefit from my dad’s account. To this day, many working women send me emails making the same points my mom did 25 years ago.
I tried to explain to my mom, and I still try to explain to those sending me emails today, that if the law allowed them to get both a retirement benefit and a dependent spousal benefit, where would we draw the line? Why can’t all working people in this country, both men and women, claim their own Social Security benefit AND spousal benefits from their husband or wife? For example, I get a really nice retirement benefit from the government. Why can’t I get some of my wife’s Social Security? Obviously, I know the answer to that question. I just wish my mom would have seen it that way.