Here is a great Social Security update article from Marketwatch, posted today.
Yes, retirement-focused (some might say retirement-obsessed) folks are spending their summer days and nights, and in some cases their vacations, combing through the just-released 2011 edition of “Fast Facts & Figures About Social Security” in search of whatever insights can be gleaned about the current state of retirement in America, and what, if any, items we can put on our collective to-do list.
And the latest edition, which answers the most frequently asked questions about the programs the Social Security Administration (SSA) administers, doesn’t disappoint. The book, among other things, highlights basic data for the Social Security (retirement, survivors and disability) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs.
Here’s what experts say you should do or consider given the facts and figures in the 2011 version of this “book,” which is published by the SSA.
Read the report, “Fast Facts and Figures About Social Security, 2011.”
Social Security is a major source of income for older Americans
It might not come as a surprise, but the first item of note is this: About one in every five Americans, or nearly 60 million people, receive some type of benefit or assistance from Social Security. And about 80% of those beneficiaries are age 62 or older. And for those beneficiaries, it’s an especially important source of income for older Americans.
Consider: In 2009, Social Security represented 38% of all income going to Americans aged 65 and older. That’s up eight percentage points from the 30% in 1962.
“Workers tend to dismiss Social Security as a major source of their retirement income,” said Andy Landis, author of Social Security: The Inside Story, 2011 Edition and the founder of Thinking Retirement. “The data say not so fast. Social Security represents the largest source of their income. Social Security provides more income than any of the other legs of the retirement stool — more than earnings, savings or pensions. Workers need to wake up to the reality that Social Security is vital for their retirement finances.”
Others, including Jason Fichtner, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, are of the same opinion. He noted that 66% of all beneficiaries now rely on Social Security for 50% or more of their income in retirement, while 35% rely on benefits for 90% or more of their income.
For non-married beneficiaries, which includes widows and widowers, the numbers are even more staggering, Fichtner said. Some 73% rely on benefit payments for 50% or more of their income and 43% rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. See the chart on page 7 of Fast Facts & Figures, which shows the percentage of aged units receiving Social Security benefits, by relative importance of benefits to total income relative importance of Social Security benefits. (In addition to that chart, Fichtner said he tends to focuses on three other charts when reading Fast Facts & Figures: Receipt of Income, 1962 and 2009; Shares of Aggregate Income, 1962 and 2009; and Relative Importance of Social Security, 2009.)
Not surprisingly, a spokesperson for AARP, the lobbying group for older Americans and which recently called on Congress to protect Social Security benefits, had these observations about Fast Facts & Figures: “The report shows that Social Security is the single greatest source of aggregate income for retirees, and represents a greater share of aggregate retirement income today than it did in 1962,” said Cristina Martin-Firvida, AARP director of Financial Security and Consumer Affairs.
By contrast, she said the share from earnings in 2009 is about the same as it was in 1962, and the share from asset income is lower (15% in 1962 and 11% in 2009). “Undoubtedly, an unpromising job market, depressed housing values, and an unstable equities market have all made retirement today less financially secure,” said Martin-Firvida. “This data underscores the critical importance of maintaining the earned, guaranteed and inflation-protected benefit that Social Security offers Americans in retirement.”
Earned income is a big source of income too
While Social Security represents a large percentage of total income for older Americans, earned income is an important source of income as well. In fact, at 29%, it represents the second largest source of total income for Americans aged 65 and older in 2009. The odd thing about earned income, however, is that the percent of total income that earnings represented in 2009 is about the same as it was in 1962.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. According to Fichtner, the percentage of ‘aged units’ (basically those age 65 or over) that report receiving ‘earnings’ was only 26% in 2009, down from 36% in 1962 — while the percentage of people 65 or over receiving Social Security has rapidly increased to 87% in 2009 from 69% in 1962. “What this tells you is that Social Security benefits are now a universal income source for those Americans age 65 and over,” he said. “And, it’s a very important source of income to keep people out of poverty.”
Not all that big a benefit
While Social Security represents a large percent of income for older Americans, the actual amount of the benefit seems somewhat small, according to Alicia Munnell, the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. The average Social Security benefit amount for new awards in 2010 was $1,193 per month, or $14,316 per year according to Fast Facts & Figures.
According Janet Barr, the chairperson of the American Academy of Actuaries Social Security Committee, Americans preparing for retirement should take the time to learn how their Social Security benefit could be affected by the decision of when to retire.
By delaying retirement, the Social Security benefit amount goes up due to additional earnings and years of service, Barr said. It also increases because an early retirement reduction is not applied (5% or 6.66% per year before Normal Retirement Age or what some call Full Retirement Age or FRA).
In cases when retirement is delayed beyond the Normal Retirement Age, a delayed retirement credit also increases the benefit amount (8% per year after Normal Retirement Age), she said.
“Waiting a few years to retire could provide a 25% increase in benefit, which would boost a $1,200 per month benefit to $1,500 per month,” said Barr.
No increase in OASI filings
The economy is down and the unemployment rate is still high. But the number of people applying for Social Security is flat, according to Landis’ read of Facts & Figures.
“One thing that surprised me is that the number of OASI (The Old Age Survivors Insurance, meaning retirees and survivors) claims were the same in 2009 and 2010 (4.7 million in both year),” said, Landis. “I would have thought with all the unemployed, more people would be filing for retirement. Not so. The data show that retirement-age workers are hanging onto their jobs rather than retiring and filing for Social Security — perhaps a fair measure of financial readiness for retirement, or lack thereof.”
Disability claims and SSI public assistance claims are up
On the contrary, Landis noted that disability claims are up, as are SSI public assistance claims. And to some, including John Laitner, the director of the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, that spells trouble.
The Old Age Survivors Insurance (OASI) fund, from which retirement benefits are paid, continues to grow modestly, Laitner said. The OASI fund is expected to grow from $2.4 trillion in 2010 to an estimated $2.5 trillion in 2011. (See page 3 of Facts & Figures.) But the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund is shrinking, and has reached a very low level. The DI fund is expected to fall from $180 billion in 2010 to an estimated $154 billion in 2011.
What’s more, disability awards have grown faster since 1970 than those for retirees, Laitner said. The annual number of awards to disabled retired workers rose from 1.3 million in 1970 to 2.6 million in 2010, while for disabled workers it increased from 350,000 in 1970 to 1 million in 2010. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the average age of retired beneficiaries has risen slightly since 1960, but the average age of disabled beneficiaries has fallen.
According to Facts & Figures: “The average age of disabled-worker beneficiaries in current-payment status has declined substantially since 1960, when DI benefits first became available to persons younger than age 50. In that year, the average age of a disabled worker was 57.2 years. The rapid drop in average age in the following years reflects a growing number of awards to workers under 50. By 1995, the average age had fallen to a low of 49.8, and by 2010, it had risen to 52.8. By contrast, the average age of retired workers has changed little over time, rising from 72.4 in 1960 to 73.7 in 2010.” (See page 17.)
Said Laitner: “In my opinion, long-run concerns about the financial solvency of both OASI and DI are warranted, but between the two, DI seems to raise the most immediate alarm.”
Elderly households not slipping behind
After correcting for inflation, both married couples and singles in 2009 have roughly double the income of those aged 65 and older in 1962. According to Facts & Figures, the median income of a married couple aged 65 or older was $43,114 in 2010, up 111% from $20,424 in 1962.
By contrast, wage growth has lagged in past decades, said Laitner. According to the Economic Report of the President for 2011, average wage and salary income for 25-65 year old college graduates rose, after correcting for inflation, 60% from about $50,000 in 1963 to about $80,000 in 2009. And that high school graduate wage and salary income showed almost no gain for the same period.
“We all wish that economic growth could be faster,” said Laitner. “Nevertheless, the data offers some reassurance that elderly households are not slipping behind younger households in a difficult period.”
More than a retirement program
Another often overlooked fact about Social Security is that it’s much more than a retirement program, said Munnell. “Some 31% of benefits go to those under 62,” she said.
Here’s the breakdown according to Fast Fact & Figures: There are more than 54 million beneficiaries in current-payment status. And 64% of those beneficiaries were retired workers and 15% were disabled workers. The remaining 21% were survivors or the spouses and children of retired or disabled workers.
Room to raise the maximum annual wage base
Experts often recommend a combination of increasing taxes and lowering benefits as a way to save Social Security from going bankrupt. And one of the ways to increase taxes has to do with maximum annual wage base subject to Social Security tax. For 2011, the wage base subject to Social Security tax is $106,800, which is the same as what it was in 2009 and 2010.
Given his read of Facts & Figures, Landis figures Uncle Sam has some leeway to raise the maximum wage base. “One issue being discussed today is the growing wealth gap between the top quintile and all other quintiles,” said Landis. “The Social Security taxable earnings ceiling — $106,800 this year — sheds some light here: It has not kept pace with higher incomes. Currently about 84% of all earnings are taxable for Social Security, trending steadily downward from 89% in 1990. That leaves some ‘headroom’ to raise the earnings ceiling to capture more earnings, strengthening Social Security’s solvency.”
The payroll tax gift
One other item of note about Fast Facts & Figures is this: The publication reports that the Social Security payroll tax is normally 6.2% for OASI and DI combined. A special provision has lowered this to 4.2% for 2011. Said Munnell: “The employee payroll tax is 2 percentage points lower than employer (for 2011). Does everybody know they’re getting a tax cut?”
In other words, keep on working. “Actuaries and other retirement experts suggest that those close to retirement might want to continue to work in 2011 to take advantage of the lower tax rate,” said Barr. “Their Social Security benefit amount will not be impacted by the lower tax rate since general revenue reimburses Social Security for the lower tax rate.”
Longer life expectancy
Social Security actuarial studies show that Americans are living longer after reaching age 65 than they have in the past. “Because of this, actuaries have said that we need to either save more for retirement or work longer than we have in the past,” said Barr, who also noted that the American Academy of Actuaries often points to the traditional model of a three-legged stool for a secure retirement — Social Security, employer-sponsored plans and personal savings. “All three elements need to work together to support a longer life expectancy,” she said. “Retirees should not rely on only one leg of the stool to support their entire retirement. As you said, this means they may need to consider working longer or saving more.”