living aloneI love living alone, but I realize that many other people really don’t. What I think just about everyone wants, though, is to be able to decide for themselves how to live.

Starting in 1880, and maybe even earlier, and continuing for the next half-century, there was tremendous consistency in how widows, 65 and older, lived. About two-thirds lived with their adult children. Less than 4 percent lived in group quarters such as institutions. About 10 percent lived alone, and the others lived with people other than their children.

Then, starting around 1940, that all changed. The percentage of widows living alone grew and grew and grew, ending up at 62 percent in 1990 (when the analyses ended – the paper was published in 2000). The percentage who lived with their children slipped from around 67 percent all the way down to just under 20 percent.

So why did that happen? There are lots of possible reasons. For example, family size was decreasing, so there were fewer possible adult children that seniors could live with. That accounted for some of the change, but not much at all.

Of all of the different explanations that the researchers tested, one was overwhelmingly the most important. Thanks to FDR, the Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935. By 1940, seniors began to receive monthly checks.

Bottom line: Seniors chose to live on their own once they could afford to do so, and Social Security was a huge part of that growing economic empowerment.

Another set of demographers looked especially closely at the Census Bureau data on living arrangements between 1980 and 1999. On the basis of their calculations, they estimated that “a 10 percent cut in Social Security benefits would lead more than 600,000 independent elderly households to move into shared living arrangements.”


Engelhardt, G. V., Gruber, J., & Perry, C. D. (2005). Social security and elderly living arrangements. Journal of Human Resources, 40, 354-372.

McGarry, K., & Schoeni, R. F. (2000). Social security, economic growth, and the rise in elderly widows’ independence in the twentieth century. Demography, 37, 221-236.

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