AARP Tackles Social Security Misinformation

As retirees drawing Social Security income look forward to a modest increase in benefits scheduled for 2019, AARP has published a list of common Social Security misconceptions.

AARP updated its recently launched Social Security Resource Center with an analysis of the 12 most common Social Security misconceptions held by workers and retirees in the U.S.; the publication also discusses solutions and strategies for improving the long-term strength of the system.

According to David Certner, AARP’s legislative policy director, probably the first and most pervasive misunderstanding is that Social Security is at risk of “going bankrupt” in the near term.

“At the moment, you could say the opposite; the Social Security trust funds are near an all-time high,” he says. “The program really is in good shape right now,” says David Certner. “But we know it has a long-term financial challenge.”

The white paper recounts how, for decades, Social Security collected more money than it paid out in benefits. The surplus money collected from payroll taxes each year got invested in Treasury securities, generating reserves that are now worth about $2.89 trillion.

“But as the birth rate has fallen and more Boomers retire, the ratio of workers to Social Security recipients is changing. This year is a tipping point,” Certner says. “The program will need to dip into its reserves to pay full benefits from this point forward, absent any change to the program. It’s now forecast that the trust fund reserves could be exhausted in 2034. Even if that happens, Social Security won’t be bankrupt. The program will continue to pay benefits, but at a rate of 79% of what recipients expected to receive.”

According to the AARP analysis, some ideas to reform funding are starting to take shape, but near-term Congressional action remains unlikely.

“One proposal is to either raise or eliminate the wage cap on how much income is subject to the Social Security payroll tax,” AARP says. “In 2019, that cap will be $132,900, which means that any amount a worker earns beyond that is not taxed. Remove that cap, and higher-income earners would contribute far more to the system. Other options lawmakers might consider include either raising the percentage rate of the payroll tax or raising the age for full retirement benefits.”

According to AARP, it is important that workers are made to understand their Social Security benefits can be taxed, especially when an individual can draw significant resources from other income sources, such as defined contribution (DC) or defined benefit (DB) retirement accounts. As the white paper recounts, single filers whose combined annual income exceeds $34,000 might pay income tax on up to 85% of their Social Security benefits; couples filing jointly may pay tax on up to 85% if their combined income tops $44,000.

Another key myth to break is that Social Security is meant to be an adequate source of income on its own for retirees.

“The SSA says if you have average earnings, the program’s retirement benefits will replace only about 40% of your pre-retirement wages,” the analysis says. “Nevertheless, 26% of those 65 and over who receive a monthly Social Security benefit today live with families that depend on it for almost all of their retirement income. And 50% of them say their families depend on Social Security for at least half of their income.”

The full publication is available on AARP’s website.