Worried About Social Security? Here’s the Reality

This story is part of So Money, an online community dedicated to financial empowerment and advice, led by CNET Editor at Large and So Money podcast host Farnoosh Torabi.

Social Security is one of the top-searched financial terms on the internet right now. 

Interest in the topic spiked after recent news that current benefits would receive a significant cost-of-living increase to help keep up with high inflation. And as the midterm elections approach, we’re hearing again how some Republican politicians want to throw these federal benefits on the chopping block.

“This is an ideological battle that’s been going on for 85 years,” says William Arnone, CEO of the National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan organization that aims to educate the public on Social Security’s benefits. 

Like many employed Americans, I’ve been dutifully paying Social Security tax since my first gig in high school (I was a hostess in a 1950s-themed diner). I speak for my generation when I say that if the government decides to strip us of our monthly paychecks in retirement — watch out, Uncle Sam. Prepare to find us marching in the streets protesting this thievery, walking canes in tow.

My audience is also perplexed about the fate of one of the few social insurance programs in this country. When I asked followers on Instagram to drop me their related questions, I immediately received dozens of queries. Their biggest concern is over Social Security’s future and what it means for retirement for this generation and future generations. Here’s how our conversation went.

Why is Social Security important? 

Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935 during the Great Depression. Funded by taxpayer payroll contributions, the program was set up to provide for the financial needs of the aging population and some disadvantaged Americans. 

There are a lot of misconceptions around Social Security, including that it’s some kind of welfare, Arnone explained. But in fact, it’s insurance Americans pay into. Today, 1 in 4 households receive at least 90% of their family income from Social Security. Along with retirees, Social Security also provides benefits to disabled workers and some family members of deceased workers.

The median Social Security check is $1,600 a month. It won’t solve all our financial needs, but we’ll need all the support we can get to afford retirement. 

Will Social Security ever go away?  

The Social Security Administration says the fund has merely enough in reserves to pay retirees for the next 13 years. After that, our taxes will only afford about three-quarters of the scheduled benefits. The Biden administration has proposed a plan to lower the cost of living for seniors, including preserving Social Security, but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

While 74% of Americans say Social Security should remain intact, 83% doubt that the program will survive in full by the time they retire, according to the Pew Research Center. This skepticism isn’t unfounded. Arnone told me that because there is no constitutional protection, Social Security is pretty fragile. “Congress gives and Congress can take it away,” he said.

We can’t help but be anxious about it, especially when a recent survey says that US adults think a “comfortable retirement” now means having $1.25 million in the bank, and when average retirement savings have dropped by 11% just over the last year. 

Are baby boomers guaranteed to get Social Security? 

Current retirees probably have the least to worry about when it comes to receiving Social Security. Older adults are also due to receive a pay bump in January, thanks to a cost-of-living adjustment, making payments higher by 8.7%. For the average beneficiary, that’s an extra $146 for a total of $1,827 per monthly check. This hopefully means that your Social Security dollars can retain their purchasing power against inflated prices on everything from food to gas and travel. Beneficiaries should learn about their specific benefit rates by mail in December. You can also verify your new total on the Social Security website.

If you’ve yet to reach retirement age, but that day is approaching, know that if you wait until age 70 to claim Social Security, your benefit jumps by about 8% a year beyond your full retirement age. (Full retirement is age 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.)  

Here’s the breakdown of the maximum amount of money you could get monthly in 2022:

  • Collecting Social Security at age 62: $2,364
  • Collecting Social Security at age 67, or full retirement age: $3,345
  • Collecting Social Security at age 70: $4,194

Should Gen X and millennials plan on Social Security benefits?

Here’s some advice for my Gen X friends born between 1965 and 1980, as well as millennials born between 1981 and 1996: There’s a decent chance Social Security will undergo modifications in the next decade, so even if we receive the benefit, the amount may be reduced, or we may not be able to begin collecting until a later age, according to Arnone.

If Social Security is still around, it may not fully meet my needs in retirement (hello, out-of-pocket medical expenses!). But it’s not chump change, either. I ran this quick online calculation and learned that right now both my husband and I are on track to collect over $3,000 a month at full retirement age. Knowing this, we’re a little less stressed over investing every spare nickel in the stock market. It’s also encouraged us to keep working to maximize our Social Security potential — and have the earnings to invest on our own. 

The more you earn now, the more you’ll pay in taxes and the greater your Social Security paycheck will be. Still, aim to invest at least 10% to 15% of your paychecks annually in a retirement plan like a 401(k) through work and/or an Individual Retirement Account. This way, no matter what happens to Social Security, you’ll have some extra padding.

If you retire early, what happens to your benefits? 

One listener wanted to know if working for less than 30 years will be detrimental to their Social Security income. The short answer is: maybe. How much you earn during your 35 highest earning years plays an integral role in the size of your Social Security paycheck. If you worked fewer than 35 years because you retired early and didn’t make any money or took some years off of work to care for a family member, those years total as $0 earned and can drag down your average Social Security earnings. Keep that in mind, as you consider taking time out of the workforce.

Read more: It’s Hard to Recommend Stay-at-Home Parenting. Here’s Why

Is there any hope for Social Security for Generation Z?

A lot of my audience worries that Social Security will go the way of Blockbuster and just become a relic from grandma’s lifetime. I hope not. Future generations may need this support even more, as life expectancy grows and pensions become obsolete, according to Arnone. He hopes that Gen Zers will advocate for it and see it as a crucial financial lifeline for the elderly. When I asked him what kind of advice he would give, he said: “You need this. … Factor it in your planning. Don’t dismiss it.” 

My hope for Gen Z is that they continue to take advantage of their unprecedented access to financial literacy online. They should push for systemic changes and laws that can make life more affordable, but they shouldn’t wait to invest for their futures. This means negotiating for more income, avoiding the credit card debt cycle as best they can and working hard to secure their financial independence. I’m optimistic that Gen Z will be one of the most informed and inspired generations to date. If they push to keep Social Security, it’ll be icing on the cake.

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