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House Approves Bill to Enhance Social Security Benefits for Women

On May 14, the House approved, 418-0, legislation (H.R. 4069) designed to make improvements to the current Social Security system that would benefit widows, disabled widows, and divorced spouses. Sponsored by Reps. Clay Shaw (R-FL) and Robert Matsui (D-CA), the bill would update benefit eligibility requirements for disabled widows and would waive the two-year waiting period for divorced women when the ex-spouse remarries.

Under current law, workers who retire early receive reduced benefits because they are expected to collect benefits over a longer period of time. If the worker who retired early dies after receiving benefits for only a short period of time, his widow will receive reduced benefits for the remainder of her life. H.R. 4069 would repeal the current provision that subjects the widow’s benefit to the early retirement penalty, allowing her to receive the full benefit.

A widow must be at least 60 years of age before she can collect widow’s benefits under the current system. However, if she is at least 50, she can claim benefits as a disabled widow providing that she became disabled within seven years of her husband’s death. H.R. 4069 would repeal the seven-year eligibility period for disabled widows who are least 50 but under 60 years of age.

Additionally, H.R. 4069 would waive the two-year period that a divorced woman who is at least 62 must wait to collect benefits when her ex-spouse remarries.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would improve benefits for 120,000 Americans at a cost of $4 billion over 10 years, with $2.5 billion coming from the Social Security Trust Fund.

Although the bill was approved without opposition, the debate on the House floor was less than harmonious. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) expressed disappointment that H.R. 4069 was brought to the floor under suspension, without “an opportunity to strengthen the provisions of this bill today.” She said, “H.R. 4069 takes a few small steps to improve benefits for widows, but its remedies leave millions of widows behind,” she emphasized, pointing out that Rep. Matsui has introduced a bill that would increase benefits for five million additional widows. “I will vote for what is on the floor today because approximately 120,000 women will benefit, but let us not leave the millions of other widows behind whose needs would be addressed by the Matsui legislation,” she added.

Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD), however, called the bill “a good first step.” She pointed out that “three-quarters of the unmarried and widowed elderly women rely on Social Security for more than half of their income. This legislation will help.” She added, “Once implemented, this bill will help over 120,000 women. This may not sound like a large number, but the bill is going to touch the lives of more than 275 people in each of our 435 congressional districts. Even if it helps one, that is great.”

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