Most older women spent their working lives behind the economic curve. They were typically paid less than men when at work and more likely to provide family care that reduced employment opportunities.

Their economic situation doesn’t improve in later life. Lower Social Security and pension benefits, the result of working and earning less over decades, and the fact that women are more likely to live longer than men just extend that gender disadvantage into older age and often make it worse.

A new report by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston uses the Elder Index™to demonstrate the depth and scope of economic disadvantage experienced by older women living alone across the United States. It is documented in every state in the nation and only increases with age.

“Life-long patterns of inequality in work experiences and wealth accumulation are behind a substantial gender disparity in retirement economic security,” said Jan Mutchler, the report’s lead author and a professor of gerontology at UMass Boston. “The consequences of that disparity affect so many older women who routinely face hard choices about basic expenses they simply can’t afford.”

Mutchler, along with co-authors Nidya Velasco Roldan and Yang Li, found that 54 percent of women age 65 or older and living alone were economically insecure – meaning they did not have enough income to afford their local cost of living without assistance. They determined that 45 percent of older single men had insufficient income to afford the same no-frills budget covering housing, healthcare, food, transportation and other important miscellaneous items.

The level of economic insecurity of both single men and women towered over that of older couples. Just 24 percent of couples did not have the income necessary to afford their local cost of living.

The analysis of gender differences in elder economic security relied on data produced by the Elder Index, a free online tool developed and maintained by UMass Boston that calculates the detailed cost of living for older adults in every large city, county and state in the United States. Those expense figures were combined with local income data to produce elder economic insecurity rates among men, women and couples.

The study also broke down differences among the economically insecure – those whose incomes fell below the Federal Poverty Level and others who were not considered poor by government standards but nonetheless could not afford their local cost of living.

Once again, women trailed men in both categories. The analysis showed 20 percent of single women and 16 percent of single men had income below the federal level, which was $12,760 for people living alone in 2020. Thirty-four percent of single women and 29 percent of single men were found to be “in the gap” – making more than poverty-level income but not enough to afford basic expenses.

The economic disparity between older men and women living alone grows worse as both age. Among singles between the ages of 65 and 74, a total of 49 percent of women and 44 percent of men were found to be economically insecure. But among singles 85 or older, 61 percent of women and 46 percent of men had income insufficient to meet their living expenses without help.

“In living longer, women need to stretch their resources over a longer period of time,” said Mutchler. “But they arrive at retirement with fewer assets and face a higher risk of exhausting their savings. As a result, older women struggle financially and the consequences range from falling into debt, to being unable to keep up with bills or to foregoing necessary medical care.”

Higher statewide rates of elder economic insecurity among women were recorded most often in the northeast, a region accounting for seven of the top 10 states. Massachusetts had the nation’s highest rate at 69.3 percent, followed by New York, Vermont and Mississippi.

States with the largest gaps in elder economic insecurity rates between men and women were more geographically diverse but often found in the northeast and Midwest. South Dakota recorded the largest gap at 15 percentage points, followed by Utah (14 percentage points) and Alaska (13 percentage points). Washington, D.C., had the smallest gender gap at 3 percentage points.

Across the country the gender disparity in elder economic security appeared consistently among different racial and ethnic groups. Women faced similarly higher rates of insecurity than men among white, Black, Hispanic or Latino and Asian older adults.

“Clearly, the gender disparity in elder economic security is present everywhere in America,” said Mutchler. “No single policy or action can address that. But better access to affordable childcare and eldercare, as well as continued progress in gender income equity, can make a difference for older women in the future.”