Social Security may be the biggest, most important, and least understood government program in America. If you consider the sheer amount of money the program spends and the huge number of Americans who rely on the program for all or part of their livelihood, you’d think we would all have a solid working knowledge of how Social Security actually works.
Social Security is Vital to Millions, Yet Widely Misunderstood
Yet that’s not the case. We just read this interesting article about Social Security on the Motley Fool financial website. “When MassMutual recently surveyed 1,500 people 55 to 65 on their knowledge of Social Security,” the article begins, “more than half failed or barely passed.” The Fool calls that “a jaw-dropping figure,” especially when you take into account how essential Social Security is to most beneficiaries. (If you want to take the 10-question MassMutual quiz for yourself, click here.)
We want to share a few of these Social Security facts and figures from the Motley Fool article with you, but before we do, we think it’s important to get some perspective from Life Point Laws’ Rajiv Nagaich. As always, Rajiv looks behind the numbers and sees some broader implications.
Social Security Bound to be Affected by “Unprecedented Times,” Says Rajiv
“There’s an untold story here,” he states. “We’re in the midst of unprecedented times – people are waiting for stimulus checks related to the coronavirus, and millions are facing layoffs. That combination paints a really bad picture for Social Security.” According to Rajiv, people being laid off means smaller contributions into the Social Security system, while at the same time increasing numbers of workers may start taking benefits prematurely to help bridge the unemployment income gap. All of this is happening against the backdrop of a ballooning federal deficit.
Rajiv suggests now is the time to be especially proactive. “Before you leap to the solution of tapping Social Security early, you need some comprehensive advice,” he says. “If you can start planning now to work longer, that’s a good strategy. Look for ways to cut expenses, and talk to your family about the potential of multi-generational living where you can combine household incomes. As soon as possible, get a financial dashboard in place so you have the ability to evaluate and adjust your circumstances.” And, he adds, you can still attend a LifePlanning webinar from the comfort of your own home. Read on and we’ll tell you more.
How Much Do You Know About Social Security? Seven Surprising Stats
Here are some numbers compiled by MotleyFool that dramatize just how massive Social Security is and how essential to the fabric of American life.
- $1 trillion: Social Security pays out roughly $1 trillion annually to approximately 68 million Americans (as of 2018). Since the entire U.S. GDP is about $21.5 trillion, Social Security alone represents around 5 percent.
- 22 million: That’s the number of Americans Social Security is keeping out of poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “That doesn’t mean it’s giving them a comfortable, middle-class existence,” the article reminds us. The federal poverty level for singles is just $12,760 annual income – roughly $17,240 for couples.
- 8 percent: Even with the good news of those kept out of poverty by Social Security, the bad news is that nearly 9 percent of recipients are living below the poverty line even with Social Security income. “Another 5 percent were ‘near poor,’ meaning their income was between 100 percent and 125 percent of the federal poverty level,” the article reports. “The [poverty] rates were significantly higher for single people and minorities.”
- $1,507: The average Social Security benefit is about $18,000 per year, or $1,507 per month. That may come as a wake-up call to the people who may be over-estimating how much they’ll receive. The highest allowable benefit this year is $3,790 per month, or about $45,000 annually. Your benefit is a function of several factors including your year-by-year work history and the age at which you start taking benefits.
- $1,627 vs. $1,297: That average benefit just cited doesn’t tell the whole story, says Motley Fool: there’s a major gender disparity. “Because women tend to earn less over their lives, due to income inequality and also because they often have to leave the workforce for some years to care for children or other family members,” women have a much lower average monthly benefit: $1,297 in 2018 compared with $1,627 for their male counterparts..
- 24 percent: Most people know that the simplest way to boost Social Security income is to delay starting benefits. We can start collecting benefits as early as age 62 and as late as age 70, even though “full retirement age” is generally between 66 and 67. “For each year earlier than our full retirement age that we start, our benefits will shrink,” says MotleyFool. “And for each year beyond it that we delay, they’ll increase – by about 8 percent annually. So, delay from age 67 to 70 and you’ll enlarge those checks by about 24 percent.”
- 77 percent: Many people fear that Social Security is going bankrupt and their benefits will disappear. “Social Security is facing some serious challenges ahead,” the article acknowledges, “but the recent worst-case scenario was that around 2035, in about 15 years, it wouldn’t have enough to pay retirees their full benefits – but it would have enough to pay them about 77 percent of those benefits.” A 23 percent haircut is an unhappy prospect but, as the article says, “it’s a whole lot better than zero.” We hope Congress and the President will one day get around to a legislative fix.