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How Much Do You Know about Social Security?

Social Security is in the news more and more, as the first wave of baby boomers retire and economic pressures on the program increase. More than 90% of Americans are covered by Social Security,* but how much do you know about this important program?

How is Social Security funded?

Unlike many government programs, Social Security is funded primarily through the collection of payroll taxes. In 2010, 81.9% of funding came from this source, with the rest derived from interest earned on government bonds held by Social Security trust funds and income taxes paid on benefits.* That's why Social Security is known as a "pay-as-you-go" system. However, someone working and paying Social Security taxes today is not funding his or her own benefits, but is funding the benefits of someone who is receiving them now or in the near future--one of the reasons why Social Security is facing a potential funding shortfall. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the number of retired workers will double in less than 30 years, but there will be fewer workers paying into the system. And with life expectancies increasing, benefits will be paid for a longer period.*

How are earnings reported to the SSA?

If you work for an employer, your employer will send a copy of your W-2 form annually to the SSA. If you're self-employed, the IRS will report your earnings to the SSA annually after your federal income tax return has been processed.

What benefits are available?

Although Social Security is known as a retirement program, benefits are paid to people of all ages, including surviving family members and disabled individuals. In 2010, 5.7 million people were awarded Social Security benefits. Of those, 46% were retired workers, 36% were survivors or spouses/children of retired or disabled workers, and 18% were disabled workers.*

How do you qualify for benefits?

As you work and pay payroll taxes, you earn Social Security credits. Generally, you need to work 10 years to earn enough credits to qualify for retirement benefits--other benefits have different requirements. Contact the SSA if you have any questions about your benefit entitlement.

Do most people apply for early retirement benefits?

Yes. According to a report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), 43% of people take early retirement benefits at age 62, while almost 73% of people apply for benefits before they reach full retirement age.**

How much more will you receive if you delay applying for benefits?

For each year past your full retirement age you delay receiving benefits, your Social Security benefit will increase by a certain percentage (8% for anyone who was born in 1943 or later). For example, if your full retirement age is 66 and you delay receiving benefits until age 70, your annual benefit will be 32% higher.

Can you receive benefits based on an ex-spouse's record?

You may qualify for divorced spousal benefits if you were married for at least 10 years, you haven't remarried, you are age 62 or older, and you don't qualify for a higher benefit based on your own work record.

Do workers with lower earnings receive more from Social Security?

A worker who has lower earnings will receive a lower monthly benefit than someone with higher earnings because benefits are based on average lifetime earnings (the highest 35 years of earnings are used in the calculation). However, the Social Security benefit formula is designed to ensure that workers with lower earnings receive a greater percentage of their preretirement earnings. For example, a worker with relatively low earnings may receive a benefit that is approximately 55% of his or her preretirement earnings, while a worker with relatively high earnings may receive a benefit that is approximately 25% of his or her earnings.***

Do you have to stop working to receive Social Security retirement benefits?

No. As long as you've reached early retirement age and meet eligibility requirements, you can apply for Social Security benefits even if you decide to continue working. However, if you're younger than full retirement age and earn more than a certain amount, your benefits will be temporarily reduced (once you reach full retirement age, your benefits will be increased to account for the money that was withheld).

For more information, visit the Social Security website at www.socialsecurity.gov or call 800-772-1213.

Fast Facts & Figures About Social Security, 2011

GAO-11-400, Retirement Income, June 2011, based on data compiled by the SSA Office of the Chief Actuary

SSA Publication No. 05-10045, 2011