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Policy Basics: Top Ten Facts about Social Security

August 12, 2016

Eighty-one years after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, Social Security remains one of the nation's most successful, effective, and popular programs. 

Fact #1: Social Security is more than just a retirement program. It provides important life insurance and disability insurance protection as well.

About 60 million people, or more than one in every six U.S. residents, collected Social Security benefits in June 2016.  While older Americans make up about four in five beneficiaries, another one-fifth of beneficiaries received Disability Insurance (DI) or were young survivors of deceased workers.

In addition to Social Security’s retirement benefits, workers earn life insurance and DI protection by making Social Security payroll tax contributions:

  • About 96 percent of people aged 20-49 who worked in jobs covered by Social Security in 2015 have earned life insurance protection through Social Security.
  • For a young worker with average earnings, a spouse, and two children, that’s equivalent to a life insurance policy with a face value of over $600,000, according to Social Security’s actuaries.
  • About 90 percent of people aged 21-64 who worked in covered employment in 2015 are insured through Social Security in case of severe disability.

The risk of disability or premature death is greater than many realize.  Some 6 percent of recent entrants to the labor force will die before reaching the full retirement age, and many more will become disabled.


Fact #2: Social Security provides a guaranteed, progressive benefit that keeps up with increases in the cost of living.

Social Security benefits are based on the earnings on which you pay Social Security payroll taxes.  The higher your earnings (up to a maximum taxable amount, currently $118,500), the higher your benefit.

Social Security benefits are progressive: they represent a higher proportion of a worker’s previous earnings for workers at lower earnings levels.

Social Security benefits are progressive: they represent a higher proportion of a worker’s previous earnings for workers at lower earnings levels.  For example, benefits for a low earner (with 45 percent of the average wage) retiring at age 65 in 2016 replace about half of his or her prior earnings.  But benefits for a high earner (with 160 percent of the average wage) replace about one-third of prior earnings, though they are larger in dollar terms than those for the low-wage worker.

Because many employers have shifted from offering traditional defined-benefit pension plans, which guarantee a certain benefit level upon retirement, toward defined-contribution plans (such as 401(k)s), which pay a benefit based on a worker’s contributions and the rate of return they earn, Social Security will be most workers’ only source of guaranteed retirement income that is not subject to investment risk or financial market fluctuations.

Once someone starts receiving Social Security, his or her benefits increase to keep pace with inflation, helping to ensure that people do not fall into poverty as they age.  In contrast, most private pensions and annuities are not adjusted (or are only partly adjusted) for inflation.

Fact #3: Social Security provides a foundation of retirement protection for nearly every American, and its benefits are not means-tested.

97% of the elderly either receive Social Security or will receive itAlmost all workers participate in Social Security by making payroll tax contributions, and almost all elderly Americans receive Social Security benefits.  In fact, 97 percent of the elderly (aged 60 to 89) either receive Social Security or will receive it, according to SSA estimates.  The near-universality of Social Security brings many important advantages.

Social Security provides a foundation of retirement protection for people at all earnings levels.  It encourages private pensions and personal saving because it isn’t means-tested — in other words, it doesn’t reduce or deny benefits to people whose income or assets exceed a certain level.  Social Security provides a higher annual payout than private retirement annuities per dollar contributed because its risk pool is not limited to those who expect to live a long time, no funds leak out in lump-sum payments or bequests, and its administrative costs are much lower.

Indeed, universal participation and the absence of means-testing make Social Security very efficient to administer.  Administrative costs amount to only 0.7 percent of annual benefits, far below the percentages for private retirement annuities.  Means-testing Social Security would impose significant reporting and processing burdens on both recipients and administrators, undercutting many of those advantages while yielding little savings.

Finally, Social Security’s universal nature assures its continued popular and political support.  Large majorities of Americans say that they don’t mind paying for Social Security because they value it for themselves, their families, and millions of others who rely on it

Fact #4: Social Security benefits are modest.

The average Social Security retirement benefit in June 2016 was $1,350 a month, or a bit over $16,000 a year.Social Security benefits are much more modest than many people realize; the average Social Security retirement benefit in June 2016 was about $1,350 a month, or a bit over $16,000 a year.  (The average disabled worker and aged widow received slightly less.)  For someone who worked all of his or her adult life at average earnings and retires at age 65 in 2016, Social Security benefits replace about 39 percent of past earnings.  This “replacement rate” will slip to about 36 percent for a medium earner retiring at 65 in the future, chiefly because the full retirement age, which has already risen to 66, will climb to 67 over the 2017-2022 period.

Moreover, most retirees enroll in Medicare’s Supplementary Medical Insurance (also known as Medicare Part B) and have Part B premiums deducted from their Social Security checks.  As health care costs continue to outpace general inflation, those premiums will take a bigger bite out of their checks.

Social Security benefits are modest by international standards, too.  The United States ranks near the bottom among developed countries in the percentage of an average worker’s earnings replaced by the public pension system.


Fact #5: Children have an important stake in Social Security.

Social Security is important for children and their families as well as for the elderly.

Social Security’s Effect on Poverty, 2014
Age group Percent in poverty Number lifted out of poverty by Social Security
  Excluding Social Security Including Social Security  
Children Under 18 22.6 21.1 1,106,000
Adults Aged 18-64 16.5 13.5 5,832,000
Elderly Age 65 and Over 41.5 10.0 14,488,000
Total, All Ages 21.6 14.8 22,426,000
Women Age 65 and Over 45.6 12.1 8,578,000

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, March 2015.


More than 6 million children under age 18 lived in families that received income from Social Security in 2014.  That number included 3.2 million children who received their own benefits as dependents of retired, disabled, or deceased workers, as well as others who lived with parents or relatives who received Social Security benefits.

Social Security lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty in 2014.


Fact #6: Two in five elderly Americans would be poor without Social Security. 

Without Social Security benefits, more than 40 percent of Americans aged 65 and older would have incomes below the poverty line, all else being equal.  With Social Security benefits, 10 percent do.  The program lifts 14.5 million elderly Americans out of poverty.

Fact #7: Most elderly beneficiaries rely on Social Security for the majority of their income.

For 61 percent of elderly beneficiaries, Social Security provides the majority of their cash income.  For 33 percent of them, it provides 90 percent or more of their income. 

Reliance on Social Security increases with age, as older people — especially older women — outlive their spouses and savings.  Among those aged 80 or older, Social Security provides the majority of income for 72 percent of beneficiaries and nearly all of the income for 42 percent of beneficiaries.

Fact #8: Social Security is particularly important for minorities.

Social Security is a particularly important source of income for groups with low earnings and less opportunity to save and earn pensions, including African Americans and Latinos.  Among beneficiaries aged 65 and older, Social Security represents 90 percent or more of income for 41 percent of Asian Americans, 45 percent of African Americans, and 52 percent of Latinos, compared with 32 percent of whites.


African American and Hispanic workers benefit substantially from Social Security because they have higher disability rates and lower lifetime earnings than whites, on average.  Hispanic workers also have longer average life expectancies than whites, which means they have more years to collect retirement benefits.

Fact #9: Social Security is especially beneficial for women.

Social Security is especially important for women, because they tend to earn less than men, take more time out of the paid workforce, live longer, accumulate less savings, and receive smaller pensions.  Women constitute 56 percent of Social Security beneficiaries aged 62 and older and 66 percent of beneficiaries aged 85 and older.  In addition, women make up 97 percent of Social Security survivor beneficiaries.

Women benefit disproportionately from the program’s inflation-protected benefits (because they tend to live longer than men), its progressive formula for computing benefits (because they tend to have lower earnings), and its benefits for spouses and survivors.


Fact #10: Relatively modest changes would place Social Security on sound financial footing.

Since the mid-1980s, Social Security has collected more in taxes and other income each year than it pays out in benefits and has amassed combined trust funds of $2.8 trillion, invested in interest-bearing Treasury securities.  But Social Security’s costs will grow in coming years as baby boomers retire.

The trustees estimate that, if policymakers took no further action, Social Security’s combined Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and DI trust funds will be exhausted in 2034. After 2034, even if policymakers took no further action, Social Security could still pay three-fourths of scheduled benefits, relying on Social Security taxes as they are collected.  Alarmists who claim that Social Security won’t be around when today’s young workers retire either misunderstand or misrepresent the projections.  The long-term gap between Social Security’s projected income and promised benefits is estimated at 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) over the next 75 years (and 1.5 percent of GDP in the 75th year). 

A mix of tax increases and benefit modifications, carefully crafted to shield beneficiaries with limited means and to give ample notice to all participants, could put the program on a sound footing indefinitely.  There is some room to trim Social Security benefits for high earners — and to strengthen benefits for particularly vulnerable groups.  But Social Security will necessarily require an increasing share of our nation’s resources in the coming decades as the population ages, and polls show a widespread willingness to support it through higher tax contributions. 

By enacting these changes, policymakers could reassure future generations that they, too, will be able to count on this successful program.

Updated August 12, 2016