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Social Security: You've Earned It

En español | Like clockwork, millions of Americans receive the Social Security benefits they've earned through a lifetime of hard work.

Social Security is a guaranteed source of income you’ve earned by paying into the program that helps provide financial security in retirement. For most Americans, Social Security is the only reliable inflation-protected income source that helps older Americans keep up with rising prices, and you can’t outlive the benefits. It also provides survivor and disability benefits to millions of Americans.

So it’s no surprise that an overwhelming majority of the public supports the program – and that backing crosses party and geographical lines. An AARP survey in 2020 found support for Social Security greater than 90 percent among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

For most retirees, Social Security is the largest source of income. The average retired worker benefit is now $1,779 a month, reflecting the 8.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment that took effect in January. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Social Security. Before its creation in 1935, it’s estimated that roughly half of seniors without income and savings lived in poverty, dependent on family or the poorhouse, a horrific institution where residents lived in squalor and were known as inmates. Social Security addressed this injustice by recognizing that certain changes in life – retirement, illness, injury, and death – can cause a family’s income to plunge through no fault of their own. 

From the start, benefits were linked to work. You earn Social Security by working and contributing to the program for a period of years. Most of the U.S. workforce is now covered by the program, which is largely financed by workers’ payroll taxes. This is different from other programs that are supported by general tax revenues and pay benefits only to certain individuals. 

Over time, Social Security expanded its safeguards for what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “the hazards and vicissitudes of life.” Reflecting its social insurance mission, benefits were added for spouses of workers and retirees, survivors of workers who die, workers with disabilities, and their immediate family members. Today more than 66 million Americans of all ages receive a Social Security benefit. 

Another distinctive trait of Social Security is that your benefits are guaranteed. They don’t rise and fall with the stock market or depend on your employers’ decisions. Social Security payments are calculated based on your highest 35 years of earnings and your age when you or your dependent starts collecting Social Security benefits. 

In the 1970s, Congress took the significant step of making inflation protection a regular feature of Social Security by adding a cost-of-living adjustment.  For example, this year’s “COLA” increased benefits $146 per month for the average retiree.

For all these reasons, Social Security stands out as a great and popular success. Data from the Social Security Administration tell this story quite clearly:

  • For many retirees, Social Security is essential. It accounts for at least half the income of 42 percent of women and 37 percent of men. It accounts for virtually all the income for 15 percent of women and 12 percent of men in the program.   

  • Social Security is a lifeline for millions. The average woman will receive more than half a million dollars in Social Security payments over the course of 25 years in retirement. In contrast, 78% of women nearing retirement have less than $100,000 saved, while 50% have no savings at all. 

  • Millions of younger people also benefit right now from coverage under Social Security. Workers with disabilities and their family members represented 12.4 percent of benefits paid in 2021; survivors of deceased workers accounted for 11.6 percent of benefits paid that same year. Four million children get payments because a parent has retired, died, or lost the health needed for work.

Of course, our society has changed a great deal since Social Security’s birth in the Great Depression. Yet by some measures, the program is becoming even more important in the 21st century.

Increased longevity keeps adding to the cost of retirement. Prices for basic necessities continue to rise. Many Americans have little or no savings, and employer-paid pensions are increasingly scarce. More seniors are single and lack family support. 

Given these realities, we must keep Social Security strong. Social Security is income you have earned and can depend on, and this is as important and relevant as ever. We need to give young people the confidence that they will receive the benefits they’re earning now through their hard work, just as their parents and grandparents have done.  

Social Security has never missed a payment and AARP will never stop fighting to protect this indispensable earned benefit, so it stays strong for you, your family and future generations of Americans.

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