"Social Security cuts about in half the gap in poverty rates between elderly women and elderly men," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The nonprofit research center used 1997 Census data to measure the impact Social Security benefits have on lifting elderly Americans' incomes above the federal poverty level.
Overall, the study found that without income from Social Security, 47.6 percent of elderly Americans would have been poor in 1997. Social Security benefits, however, cut that poverty rate to 11.9 percent nationally, or 3.8 million senior citizens.
Elderly individuals were considered to be poor in 1997 if they had income below $7,698 a year. For couples, the limit was $9,712.
Women in particular benefit from Social Security, the study found. Although women pay 38 percent of all Social Security payroll taxes, they get 53 percent of benefits.
In part, that's because women live longer than men, and Social Security benefits rise each year to keep up with inflation. Also, women make up the bulk of those who collect the special Social Security benefits that spouses, widows and widowers are entitled to receive even if they never worked themselves.
Social Security generally provides bigger retirement checks to people who earned more during their working lives and men, in all fields, still earn more than women do.
However, the program somewhat mitigates that by taking into account a higher percentage of low-wage workers' earnings when calculating their retirement benefits -- and that does help women.
Those factors mean Social Security narrows the gap between the poverty rates for elderly men and women compared with what senior citizens would have if they didn't receive any Social Security.
Without monthly Social Security checks, 52.6 percent of women ages 65 and older would be poor, compared with 40.8 percent of men -- a gap of 11.8 percent, the study found. But with Social Security, 14.7 percent of elderly women were poor, compared with 8.2 percent of men -- cutting the old-age poverty gap between the sexes to 6.5 percent.
Lawmakers are looking at ways to change Social Security to save money. But it's unclear if anything will be done this year.
Written By Alice Ann Love