Social Security: Understanding the Basics

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It’s hard to imagine that any government program touches the lives of more Americans than Social Security. The bedrock of retirement for most of the country, Social Security paid monthly benefits to 65 million people in 2020, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Most, about 49 million, were retirees and their families, but the program also sustains disabled workers, families that lose a parent or spouse and other vulnerable populations. 

See: The Biggest Problems Facing Social Security
Read More: Next Year’s Social Security Checks Could Get Biggest COLA Bump in 13 Years

If you’re not yet cashing checks, chances are good you’re kicking into the pot. About 180 million Americans pay into Social Security through their taxes. The program is so ubiquitous, in fact, that the Social Security number the SSA issues you at birth will serve as your numerical identity for the rest of your life. 

Read: How To Calculate Your Debt-to-Income Ratio

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A Very Brief History of Social Security

Before Social Security, retirement planning consisted mostly of having a lot of kids to take care of you when you were too old or sick to work. Governments had experimented with “poor laws” and other semi-organized efforts to care for the elderly and indigent for centuries. But the business of financially supporting old people, poor people and others who couldn’t support themselves was left mostly to families, communities, charities and churches.

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That all changed in 1935 when Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. The result of decades of progressive activism by labor leaders and social welfare advocates, the legislation provided: 

  • A federal pension program for seniors ages 65 and older
  • An employer-funded unemployment insurance program
  • Financial aid for widows with children and disabled workers

Caring for the old and indigent was now officially the responsibility of the federal government. 

Find Out: Jaw-Dropping Stats About the State of Retirement in America

The Basics of Social Security

Although the vast majority of beneficiaries rely on Social Security for more than half their income, Social Security was never meant to fully support people in retirement. On average, Social Security payments replace about 40% of pre-retirement income, according to AARP. The average monthly payment is about $1,400. There are very strict and specific rules on who can claim Social Security benefits, when they can claim them and how much they’ll receive. In general: 

  • You must work for at least 10 years to be eligible
  • Your benefits are based on your 35 highest-earning years
  • Full retirement age is somewhere between 66 and 67, depending on when you were born
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Read: What You Should Understand About Economic Inequality and Its Impact on You

The payroll tax funds Social Security. Employers and employees split the bill, with both parties kicking in 6.2%. The one exception is all too familiar to those who are in business for themselves. They have to pay as both the employer and the employee. It’s the dreaded self-employment tax, a bruising 12.4% surcharge that is the cost of working for the person in the mirror.

There’s a Right Way — and a Whole Bunch of Wrong Ways — To Claim Benefits

If you’re considering applying for Social Security but you’re not sure when or how, do nothing until you know what you’re doing. There are many variables to consider and many options to ponder. Your decisions will determine the size of your monthly check. Your best bet is to speak to a professional, but if not, at least take the time to educate yourself.

Read: 35 Retirement Planning Mistakes That Waste Your Money

Kiplinger, for example, put together a primer on things like calculating benefits, cost-of-living adjustments, how benefits can grow the longer you wait to claim them and the formula for calculating spousal benefits.

This article is part of GOBankingRates’ ‘Economy Explained’ series to help readers navigate the complexities of our financial system.

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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