Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Your Social Security Benefits: A Heartfelt Thank You

Retirement Daily Guest Contributor

By Marcia Mantell, RMA®, NSSA®

The news came as quite a shock on Friday night. We had lost another one of our great American figures. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87 from complications due to cancer. In a year filled with utter turmoil, uncertainty, and angst, Justice Ginsburg’s death was yet another tragedy.

Marcia Mantell
Marcia Mantell

And yet, it’s important to take the time to reflect on the legal fights argued for and won by Justice Ginsburg that make a difference to each of us. In particular, we can all give a heartfelt thank you for her work to improve Social Security.

The unassuming, small-in-stature, tall-in-substance, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a celebrity in her late 70s. The older generations called her RBG; the younger folks coined her “The Notorious RBG.” That moniker stuck and she seemed to wear it with pride and good humor. She earned her celebrity by arguing for the people. All of the people, not just selective groups. And, not just for women.

Widows and Widowers Are Now Treated the Same

Thirteen years ago, one of my closest girlfriends lost her husband to cancer. She was devastated. He died eight days after diagnosis, leaving his wife and their two children, ages 16 and 8. Social Security stepped in immediately working with this young widow to provide survivor benefits for her and for both of their children.

Nearly 10 years ago my closest girlfriend died of leukemia, just before her 52nd birthday. She left a bereft husband and two teenage children. Again, Social Security stepped in immediately and provided surviving spouse benefits for the husband who was so despondent he had to leave his job. And family benefit support for the younger child who was 14 when his mom died.

If the year had been 1975 instead of 2008 and 2011, only the young widow would have received benefits. Widowers were left with no social safety net whatsoever.

Several Original Social Security Protections Specifically Excluded Men

In an interesting twist of history, men were specifically excluded from several key protections of the original 1935 Social Security Act. The assumptions during the crafting of the bill were based on the beliefs of the day: most households were married households with one man and one woman, and their children. He worked outside the home for wages; she needed to be provided for and protected by her husband.

The male worker would earn his Social Security retirement benefits by working for at least 35 years, and until age 65, regardless of his health or physical abilities to perform the job as he aged. There was no such thing as a man retiring early—his benefit payments began when he turned age 65. In fact, there were:

  • No provisions for retired widowers.
  • No spousal benefits for husbands.
  • No access to early benefits for men at age 62.
  • No surviving spouse benefits for widowed fathers who were caring for minor children.
  • No provisions for divorced husbands, regardless of how long the marriage lasted.

Reflecting the Signs of the Times

Laws are written based on the values and mores of the day, and by the Congress that sits in session at that time. In the 1930s the Congress skewed almost exclusively male. In fact, the Senate had only two women Senators (out of 96) and only six women in the 435-seat House when the Social Security law was written and signed in 1935.

Many of the protections written into the law for women were specific to women as wives. Women generally couldn’t work outside the home, and certainly couldn’t hold a job once they were married or had children. And, there was not nearly enough female representation among the lawmakers to sway any positions presented.

Social Security benefits are based on a person’s work record and the number of years one has earned an income and paid FICA taxes. If women couldn’t work, they had no work record. And, therefore, there was no reason to offer men the same protections as the woman needed to receive. It was truly a one-way street.

Nothing Stays the Same

Fortunately for both men and women, society and culture change over many decades, new opportunities arise, and laws need to be amended to make accommodations for new situations. The Social Security law was no exception.

As discrimination against women to get and keep jobs began to ease, more and more women worked for real wages outside the home. They earned their 40 credits to be independently eligible for Social Security and their 35 years of work history to earn their own retirement benefits.

In some cases, women even out-earned their husbands! That meant a wife could have a higher benefit than her husband.

And, all of a sudden, it was noted that all was not fair for men regarding their Social Security benefits. Men have RBG to thank for their access to father benefits should they become a young widower. And, to claim surviving spouse benefits on their wives, even if she was not providing more than 50% of his financial support.

RBG Successfully Changes Social Security Provisions for Men

In 1939 the young widow protection was added to the law. It was specific: If a wife becomes a widow caring for her deceased husband’s young children, she and the children would receive Social Security insurance benefits for a time. The language in the law was specific around “Mother’s Benefits.”

Until 1975 that law held. Young fathers were out of luck if they became widowers. Then, RBG successfully argued in front of the Supreme Court (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld) that gender should not be considered when providing surviving spouse benefits to widowers.

The following year, she also argued that husbands should be entitled to surviving spouse benefits during retirement regardless of their “dependency” on her income. RBG argued in front of the Supreme Court once again (Califano v. Goldfarb) that Social Security included specific discriminations against husbands, and created a gender bias in households such that a female worker’s family was less protected than a male worker’s family.

Our Debt of Gratitude

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for gender equality, whether it was to improve situations in the law for women, or for men. Social Security continues to be the most important insurance program we have. It is a critical foundation for retirement income. One of its key tenants is to protect the lower income earner in a married couple. And, it is perhaps an even more important safety net for young mothers and fathers.

There is now equal access to benefits regardless of the level of dependency one spouse has on the other, and regardless of the gender of each spouse.

Because of the changes, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued for in the Social Security Act, when it became legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry across the US, Social Security benefits were already in place for same-sex spouses. That wasn’t necessarily the goal in 1975 when she was arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of a young father.

However, we can clearly see the importance of laws being written for all people. Where no one is discriminated against on the basis of sex.

For that, and so much more, we owe “The Notorious RBG” and tremendous debt of gratitude and our profound thanks.

About the author: Marcia Mantell

Marcia Mantell is the founder and president of Mantell Retirement Consulting, Inc., a retirement business development, marketing & communications, and education company supporting the financial services industry, advisors, and their clients. She is author of “What’s the Deal with Retirement Planning for Women?”, the newly published “What’s the Deal with Social Security for Women?” and blogs at BoomerRetirementBriefs.com.

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