Why Has Poverty Declined for Widows?

Publication Date: March 2019

Publisher: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Author(s): Alicia H. Munnell; Geoffrey Sanzenbacher; Alice Zulkarnain

Research Area: Population and demographics; Social conditions

Keywords: Financing Retirement

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


In the mid-1990s, the poverty rate for widows ages 65-85 was 20 percent. Since then, it has dropped sharply. Why did this decline occur and will it continue? This brief, based on a recent paper, addresses these questions by exploring three factors that could have contributed to the decline. The first is the rise in women’s educational attainment. The second is the rise in women’s work experience. The third is shifting marriage patterns, with women of higher socioeconomic status (SES) now more likely to be married than their lower-SES counterparts.

The discussion proceeds as follows. The first section describes the three factors that could have reduced widows’ poverty and how they have changed over recent decades. The second section quantifies how much of the decline in widows’ poverty can be explained by each factor. The third section projects what might happen to widows’ poverty in the next
decade. The final section concludes that increases in education and work experience have driven the decline in widows’ poverty to date, but marriage selection will likely play a significant role in a continuing decline in the future. Still, even after these effects play out, widows’ poverty will remain well above that of married women.