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Editorial: Social Security gets a raise. Here are the numbers

Editorial: Social Security gets a raise. Here are the numbers

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Social Security is the largest single program in the federal budget and it’s about to get bigger. The recently announced 5.9% jump in the annual cost of living adjustment is the largest since 1982. Retirees will see an average of $92 added to their monthly benefits next year, raising the typical amount to $1,657, the Social Security Administration estimates.

Social Security, which sends payments to about 65 million beneficiaries, was created in 1935 to ensure financial stability for older residents and later expanded to include people with disabilities. Nearly 9 out of every 10 people over the age of 65 receive Social Security. Collectively, the payments make up about a third of their income, though it is closer to 80% for low-income seniors.

Few federal programs directly touch such a large swath of the overall population. The program, though, has well-documented financial problems — the Social Security trust fund is expected to be depleted in 2033. But even if it gets to that point, the payroll taxes paid by workers that fund Social Security should cover about 76% of the benefits, at least in the short term. Suggesting ways to “fix” Social Security is nearly a national pastime. We’ll leave the details and merits of those ideas for future editorials.

In the meantime, a breakdown of who gets all that Social Security money and how much.

The big picture

23% — Social Security’s share of the federal budget in 2020. Compare that to 16% for defense and international security assistance, or 2% for transportation.

15% — Social Security’s share of the federal budget in 1970.

5.4% — Social Security as a percent of gross domestic product in 2020.

5.9% — Projected share of GDP in 2030.

How much do they get?

The answer depends on a lot of factors, including how long a person worked, how much they earned, when they retire and how long they live. The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Institute creates many hypothetical scenarios, all based on someone who works every year from age 22 to 65 and then adds in marital status, life expectancy and various income levels. In these scenarios, the contributions to the Social Security program include the worker and the employer share of payroll taxes. Women generally live longer than men, so everything else being equal, they will make more in Social Security over their lifetimes.

Here are four scenarios all based on the beneficiary retiring last year:

A single man who was a low earner his entire career — the equivalent of making $25,200 every work year in 2020 dollars — would have contributed $141,000 in payroll taxes between him and his employer over his work life and would get back $201,000 in his retirement.

A single woman who was a high earner her entire career — $89,600 in 2020 dollars — would have contributed $500,000 over her work life and would receive $486,000 in her retirement. Under the same circumstances, a man would get back $433,000.

A couple who married at 24 years old with one high earner — $89,600 in 2020 dollars — would have contributed about $500,000 and would receive $744,000 in their retirement.

A couple who married at 24 years old with two average earners — $112,000 total — would have contributed about $625,000 and would get back $698,000 in their retirement.

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