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Middle-Class Americans’ Big Stake in Social Security

While Social Security provides a foundation of economic security for people at all income levels, new research from the Social Security Administration (SSA) illustrates its importance for those in the middle. Among beneficiaries over age 65:

  • Social Security is the main source of retirement income — providing more than half of total income — for 69 percent of middle-class beneficiaries (defined here as those in the middle 60 percent of the income scale).
  • Almost half (48 percent) of middle-class married couples rely on Social Security benefits as their main source of income. For more than 1 in 10 middle-class couples, Social Security benefits are at least 90 percent of their total income.
  • Social Security is particularly important to unmarried middle-class beneficiaries — those who are widowed, divorced, or never married. Some 83 percent of unmarried middle-class beneficiaries rely on Social Security as their main source of income. For almost half of unmarried middle-class beneficiaries, Social Security benefits are at least 90 percent of their total income.

Workers earn Social Security benefits by making payroll tax contributions throughout their careers. While benefits are modest, they are a key source of financial security, especially for the elderly. Without Social Security benefits, 41 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the official poverty line, all else being equal. With Social Security, only 9 percent do. Given the program’s powerful anti-poverty impact, cuts in Social Security benefits could significantly raise the elderly poverty rate, depending on their design.

Millions of workers and their families count on Social Security when they retire, become disabled, or die and leave dependents behind. That’s one reason why the large majority of Americans say they don’t mind paying for Social Security — they value it for themselves, their families, and the many others who rely on it.