Why should a non-working spouse be entitled to Social Security benefits?

Question: Why can a non-working spouse claim half of their working spouse’s benefit even though they have not contributed to the Social Security system?  This doesn’t seem right or fair to those of us who have contributed for years from our paychecks. Signed: Inquisitive

Dear Inquisitive: This is a question which needs a bit of historical background to properly explain: Social Security’s original purpose when it was enacted in 1935 was to prevent America’s seniors from living in poverty (remember, Social Security was enacted during the “Great Depression”).  Even before the first Social Security check was sent to a retired worker in 1940, Congress had already changed the original Social Security law to, as well, provide anti-poverty benefits to non-working spouses of a worker (a predominant family reality at that time) and surviving spouses, as well as to their minor children.  Social Security’s fundamental goal has always been to lift eligible Americans out of poverty, which it still does very effectively.

It’s important to note that this change did not (and does not) detract in any way from the benefits provided to those who work and contribute to Social Security thus earning their own SS retirement benefit.  In other words, those who receive their personally earned SS retirement benefit are not at all penalized if their non-working spouse also receives a benefit (albeit a considerably smaller amount) on the worker’s record.  Living expenses for two people are, simply, higher than for one, which was/is the rationale for also paying benefits to a dependent not eligible for Social Security benefits on their own work record.  In the end, it all comes down to avoiding poverty.

Although the numbers vary somewhat by state, gender and ethnicity, without Social Security about 38 percent of all Americans over age 65 would be living below the poverty line, whereas with Social Security only about 9 percent of Americans over 65 live below the poverty line.  But that 9 percent number would be significantly higher if non-working spouses and survivors of eligible workers were also not entitled to Social Security benefits.

While it is true that Social Security is facing future solvency issues, the thought of restricting benefits to only those who have worked and contributed to the program (and not to their non-working spouses or minor children) is not something being considered by anyone with Congressional influence, regardless of political affiliation.  Doing so would be devastating to a large segment of the American population, severely increasing poverty – the very thing that Social Security is designed to prevent.