Appraising the Value of Social Security
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The amount you get in Social Security retirement benefits is based on your earnings history and when you start to collect. The average retirement benefit is currently about $16,200 per year, and the maximum benefit is more than $32,000 if you claim benefits at full retirement age. You can increase your benefits by taking them after your full retirement age, up to 70, and you reduce them by taking them earlier (typically, as early as 62).
The survivor’s benefit of Social Security is really a life-insurance policy that has been valued at $476,000 for a 30-year-old worker who’s married with two children and has a median salary. The long-term disability protections are valued at $329,000 in coverage for that same family.
Social Security combines other distinctive features that you usually don’t find all in one place. These traits are worth keeping in mind when you’re trying to get a handle on what the program is worth to you:
- Benefits are earned. After you meet the requirements for eligibility — generally ten years of earnings for retirement, but less than that for certain protections such as disability — you’ve established your right to a guaranteed benefit, which may also extend to your dependents.
- Benefits are portable. You can change jobs with no penalty, unlike traditional pensions. Your benefits reflect earnings in various places of employment during your working life. They aren’t typically reduced when you change jobs, because most jobs are covered. (Exceptions include most federal employees hired before 1984, various state and local government workers, and many railroad employees.)
- Benefit levels are guaranteed. Unlike 401(k)s, for example, Social Security benefits are paid under legal formulas and don’t rise or fall based on your luck with investments, the fortunes of your employer, the direction of interest rates, or other forces over which you have no control.
- Benefits are universal. Social Security covers the rich, the poor, and — most of all — the middle class. Social Security is a kind of social insurance for the benefit of individuals and society. This makes it very different from a welfare program.
- Benefits are protected against inflation. Private pensions generally don’t have this feature. But without such protection, rising prices can take a huge toll on fixed income, one that adds up the longer you live.