A majority of working Americans are completely wrong about Social Security

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In terms of retirement income, no program is more vital to seniors' financial well-being than Social Security. For more than 75 years, Social Security income has been providing a financial floor for countless seniors, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimating that elderly poverty rates in America are just 8.5% because of Social Security income as opposed to 40.5% without it.

Data from the Social Security Administration backs up this reliance on benefits. According to the SSA, 61% of all beneficiaries are counting on their Social Security benefits to supply at least half of their monthly income. This figure was particularly high (71%) for unmarried elderly individuals. Even pre-retirees, which believe they'll be less reliant on Social Security than the current generation of beneficiaries, would likely struggle to make ends meet without Social Security income.

While on one end Social Security has been a financial blessing for many retired workers, their spouses, and their families, it's also a major cause for concern. Projections from the Social Security Board of Trustees suggest that the program could begin paying out more in benefits than it's bringing in via payroll taxes, interest, and through the taxation of benefits by 2020, ultimately culminating in the program exhausting its more than $2.8 trillion in spare cash by the year 2034.

Senior Deciding Between Yes And No Boxes On Board Getty
Image source: Getty Images.

A majority of working Americans have this all wrong

If you're among the many retirees reliant on Social Security, the idea of the program "exhausting its spare cash" probably sounds terrifying. The TransAmerica Center for Retirement Studies, which regularly surveys Americans to get a feel for their retirement preparedness and knowledge, found earlier this year that 77% of workers are concerned that Social Security will not be there for them when they retire. Yet the truly terrifying fact here isn't that Social Security's spare cash is expected to be depleted in less than two decades; it's that a majority of working Americans are just plain wrong about Social Security.

One of the near-surefire guarantees of Social Security is that it will be there when baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z retire. In other words, Social Security won't be going bankrupt anytime soon, if ever.

RELATED: 25 Social Security facts and figures you need to see:

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25 Social Security facts & figures you need to see
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25 Social Security facts & figures you need to see

1. 60.66 million

As of the September 2016 snapshot from the Social Security Administration (SSA), 60.66 million people were receiving monthly benefits, two-thirds of whom are retired workers. A little more than 6 million survivors of deceased workers and 10.6 million disabled persons were also receiving monthly benefits.

(Caroline Purser via Getty Images)

2. 5.44 million

Social Security's beneficiary base is increasing rapidly due to the ongoing retirement of baby boomers, which is expected to last until about 2030. As such, 5.44 million people were newly awarded Social Security benefits in 2015. 

(ImagesBazaar via Getty Images)

3. $1,300

It's important to understand that Social Security isn't an entitlement, though the requirements for a guaranteed benefit are not too high. You need 40 lifetime work credits to qualify for Social Security benefits, and a maximum of four credits can be earned annually. In 2017, one work credit is equal to $1,300 in wages. Simply earn $5,200 in 2017 and you'll have maxed out your work credits for the year. Do that 10 times and you'll be guaranteed benefits when you retire.

4. 96%

Based on statistics from the SSA, nearly all working Americans (96%) are covered by survivors insurance protection. Though Social Security is primarily designed to provide financial protection for retired workers, it does provide benefits for the spouses, children, and in rarer cases parents of deceased workers.

5. 90%

To add to the above statistic, the SSA also points out that 90% of the American workforce is covered in case of long-term disability. Since nearly 70% of all private sector workers have no long-term disability insurance, it's good knowing that Social Security has their back.

6. 55%

An interesting figure from the SSA is that 55% of beneficiaries are women. Social Security income is of particular importance to women since 1) they tend to live about five years longer than men, on average, and 2) they're often the caregivers that take care of the kids or sick family members, thus their lifetime earnings are often lower than their male counterparts'. Social Security income can be critical to ensuring a healthy financial foundation for women come retirement.

7. 32%

According to an analysis conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Social Security income has reduced what would be a 40.5% poverty rate for seniors without this added income to just 8.5%. While the CBPP's analysis can't factor in external variables such as how much extra seniors would have saved prior to retiring if Social Security wasn't available, it's clear as day that Social Security is critical to keeping seniors on solid financial footing. 

8. 81%

Based on data from the SSA, 81% of all benefits paid out by the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Trust (OASDI) are heading to seniors ages 62 and up. Just 5% go to children under the age of 18, and another 14% to adults between the ages of 18 and 61.

9. 61%

Statistics from the SSA in 2016 show that 61% of seniors rely on Social Security to provide at least half of their monthly income. For elderly couples this figure was 48%, while 71% of unmarried elderly persons lean heavily on the program for at least half of their monthly income.

10. $920.2 billion

The SSA's data showed that $920.2 billion was collected from three revenue channels in 2015. A majority of this revenue came from payroll taxes (86.4%), while interest earned on the OASDI's spare cash (10.1%) and the taxation of benefits (3.4%) comprised the remainder.

11. 12.4%

Payroll taxes comprise the lion's share of revenue collection for Social Security. This tax totals 12.4% of wages (up to a certain point, which is discussed below) and it's typically split down the middle between you and your employer, with each paying 6.2%. If you happen to be self-employed, you're on the line for the entire 12.4% tax.

12. $127,200

There is, however, a cap on how much a person can be taxed by the SSA via the payroll tax. All earned income in 2017 between $1 and $127,200 is subject to the 12.4% payroll tax. Any wages beyond that point are free and clear of being taxed by the SSA.

13. $1,351.70

The September 2016 snapshot shows that the average retired worker is bringing home $1,351.70 per month, or $16,220 over the course of a year. Annual benefit increases are tied to the inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clericals Workers, or the CPI-W. 

14. 0.3%

Speaking of inflation, Social Security beneficiaries are getting a 0.3% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2017, the smallest increase on record. Social Security's COLA has been dragged down in recent years by weaker energy and food costs, which are sizable components of the CPI-W.

15. 33 out of 35 years

One of the more saddening facts and figures about Social Security is that its COLA has been lower than medical cost inflation in 33 of the past 35 years. The CPI-W factors in a number of varied expenses, but medical costs are a much smaller portion of workers' average expenditures. Seniors spend double what urban wage earners and clerical workers do on medical costs as a percentage of their annual expenditures.

16. $2,687

Social Security benefits are capped at $2,687 per month, which makes sense given that payroll taxes have an annual cap as well. The monthly benefit cap is usually adjusted year-to-year based on inflation. Only a small fraction of Americans have a shot at reaching this maximum payout, as you'll see in the next figure.

17. 60%

Based on data from 2013, as assembled by the Centers for Retirement Research at Boston College, 60% of retirees sign up for benefits before reaching their full retirement age (FRA). A person's FRA is when they become eligible to receive 100% of their FRA benefit. By signing up early, retirees are taking a cut in benefits from their FRA benefit of up to 25% to 30%.

19. 2.8-to-1

As of 2015, the worker-to-beneficiary ratio stood at 2.8 workers for every one beneficiary. In about two decades, this ratio is forecast to drop to 2.1-to-1. In simpler terms, baby boomers are retiring in increasing numbers, and there simply aren't enough new workers to take their place and maintain the worker-to-beneficiary ratio at its current level. This leads to the next point...

20. The year 2020

Based on the latest report from the Social Security Board of Trustees, by 2020 the cash inflow into the OASDI is slated to turn into a cash outflow. In other words, what's expected to be close to $2.9 trillion in spare cash will begin dwindling in 2020.

21. The year 2034

Perhaps the scariest finding of the Trustees' report is that Social Security's spare cash is expected to be exhausted by the year 2034. Assuming Congress passes no new laws affecting Social Security, the Trustees predict that an across-the-board benefits cut of up to 21% may be needed to sustain payouts through the year 2090.

22. 2.66%

Findings from the Board of Trustees report also showed that the actuarial deficit in 2016 was 2.66% for the program. In easier-to-understand terms, a 2.66% increase to the payroll tax would be expected to alleviate all funding concerns through the year 2090. This would mean an increase to 7.53% if you're employed by someone else, or 15.06% if you're self-employed.

23. 56%

It's a fact that gets overlooked by many seniors, but Social Security income may be taxable. Individuals earning more than $25,000 annually and joint filers with income over $32,000 could have a percentage of their Social Security benefits taxed. Not to mention 13 states also tax Social Security benefits.

24. 51%

According to Gallup, 51% of polled Americans in 2015 believed Social Security won't be there for them when they retire. Luckily, this is blatantly false. Social Security is essentially incapable of going bankrupt because it'll always be collecting payroll tax revenue from the workforce. Benefits may indeed need to be cut, but the program will be there for many generations to come.

25. 28%

Finally, a survey conducted by MassMutual Financial Group in 2015 found that just 28% of the more than 1,500 respondents who took its quiz received a passing grade and correctly answered at least 7 out of 10 multiple choice or true/false questions. Only 1 respondent out of more than 1,500 got all 10 questions correct. It's a stark reminder of just how little Americans know about Social Security.

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The reason Social Security will be able to provide benefits to America's retired workforce, the disabled, and survivors of deceased workers lies with the payroll tax. Even if the more than $2.8 trillion current in spare cash is depleted as the Trustees report has predicted, payroll tax revenue -- a 12.4% tax that's often split down the middle between you and your employer, or which is paid in full by the self-employed -- will continue to be levied and collected on America's workforce. As long as Americans keep working, the program will continue to generate revenue.

Social Security can, in theory, continue forever as a budget-neutral program that pays out benefits based on what is collected via payroll tax revenue and the taxation of benefits. Interest income earned from its spare cash is the only component of the program set to essentially disappear once that excess cash has been exhausted.

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mage source: Highways Agency via Flickr.

Two steps for working Americans to take now

The true worry for working Americans should be that their future Social Security benefit may be reduced from its current trajectory. The Board of Trustees estimates that when the spare cash is depleted, across-the-board benefit cuts of 21% may be needed to sustain the program through 2090. This would put three in five retirees who count on Social Security for a majority of their monthly income in a very precarious position.

This estimate serves as a wake-up call for working Americans to both (1) have a working budget and retirement budget ready, and (2) have alternative channels of income for retirement.

1. Have a working and retirement budget

Budgeting is critical for a variety of reasons but none more important than that it helps you understand your cash flow. If you don't have a firm grasp of where your money is being spent once it's deposited into your account by your employer, then your chances of maximizing your saving habits or minimizing your discretionary spending is low.

Creating a budget can be done entirely online these days with the use of free software, and the biggest challenge is no more involved than adding and subtracting and sticking to your plan. Some of the most helpful hints for budgeting with the goal of saving as much as you reasonably can for retirement include:

  • Getting everyone in your household involved, since it'll encourage you and those around you to stick to the household budget.
  • Meeting up with like-minded individuals once or twice monthly to share your ideas and progress.
  • Formulating "SMART" goals.
  • Using separate accounts for different spending categories, such as food and entertainment.
  • Most importantly, analyzing your data monthly to assess your progress.
Budget Figures With Calculator And Pen Getty

Image source: Getty Images.

Having a retirement budget is just as critical as the budget working Americans use to save money. Retirement probably means giving up a consistent working wage for good, and for many Americans that can mean a sudden drop in monthly income. If you're nearing retirement and haven't thought about a retirement budget, you could be in for a shocking surprise when your income drops 10%, 20%, or even more once you retire, especially if you're still working with your old budget from when you were working.

Furthermore, not having a retirement budget in place could lead to you depleting your nest egg faster than expected or pulling out more than you need from your retirement accounts each year and paying more in taxes as a result.

2. Have alternative channels of income

Working Americans also need to ensure that they have alternative channels of income beyond just Social Security when they retire. If you have other forms of income, then a 21% cut to Social Security benefits may not be crippling to your financial well-being.

Retirement Nest Egg

Image source: Getty Images.

Arguably the most popular retirement income channel is the employer-sponsored 401(k). According to StatisticBrain.com, 52.5 million Americans have a 401(k), with the value of assets held by 401(k)s totaling about $4.5 trillion. A 401(k) is a tax-deferred retirement plan, meaning the money is taken out pre-tax and can lower your current-year tax liability. However, you'll owe federal tax once you begin making withdrawals during retirement. A 401(k) can be particularly attractive if your employer offers to match a percentage of your contribution, which is essentially free money.

For those of you who work for an employer that doesn't offer a 401(k), either a traditional IRA or Roth IRA is always available. The popularity of the Roth IRA has grown particularly quickly in recent years since eligible distributions are completely tax-free. Unlike a traditional IRA or 401(k), which provide that aforementioned up-front tax benefit and deferred taxation until retirement, a Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars -- and since you've already paid your taxes on those dollars, any subsequent gains on that money is free and clear of taxation as long as you make a qualified withdrawal.

Long story short, there are ample ways for working Americans to save money and diversify their income stream during retirement. Social Security will be there for you when you retire, but that doesn't mean you should rely on it to be your primary or sole source of income.

The $15,834 Social Security bonus most retirees completely overlook

If you're like most Americans, you're a few years (or more) behind on your retirement savings. But a handful of little-known "Social Security secrets" could help ensure a boost in your retirement income. For example: one easy trick could pay you as much as $15,834 more... each year! Once you learn how to maximize your Social Security benefits, we think you could retire confidently with the peace of mind we're all after. Simply click here to discover how to learn more about these strategies.

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