Social Security: Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance

SOCIAL SECURITY:  $967 billion;  24% of Federal Outlays

Social Security in a Nutshell:

  • Social Security consists of two separate parts: Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) with outlays of $817 billion; and Disability Insurance (DI) with outlays of $150 billion.
  • Under OASI, monthly benefits are paid to retired workers, their spouses and dependent children, and survivors of deceased workers (spouses, dependent children and dependent parents). Average monthly benefits for retired workers: $1,348 in 2016.  Social Security is the major source of income for most of the elderly.  Generally, a worker must have 10 years (40 quarters) of covered employment to be eligible for retirement benefits.
  • Retirement Age: The Social Security Amendments of 1983 established a very gradual schedule for increasing the full retirement eligibility age from 65 to 67.  People can still elect to take early retirement at age 62 with lower benefits.
    CRS: Social Security Retirement Age
  • Initial OASI benefits are based on a worker’s past average monthly earnings, indexed to reflect changes in national wage levels (and adjusted upward for low earners). Each subsequent year, benefits are adjusted upward to compensate for consumer price inflation. These annual adjustments are called “cost of living adjustments,” or COLAs.   The Social Security benefit formula is progressive, returning a higher percentage of a lower-wage worker’s average monthly earnings.  In 1983, Congress made up to 50% of Social Security benefits taxable for higher income beneficiaries; and in 1993, up to 85% was made taxable.
  • Social Security Survivors Insurance (SI) is similar to life insurance. When a worker dies, his or her spouse, dependent children, disabled children over 16, dependent parents, and former spouse caring for children may qualify for Social Security survivors benefits.
  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Disability Insurance provides monthly cash benefits for disabled workers (and their dependents) who have paid into the system, met minimum work requirements, and qualify as unable to engage in “substantial gainful activity” due to a physical or mental impairment.    Monthly benefits are paid to disabled workers (who have not yet reached retirement age) and their families.  Average monthly benefits for disabled workers:  $1,166 in 2016.
  • Initial disability benefits are based on a worker’s past average monthly earnings, indexed to reflect changes in national wage levels and adjusted upward for low earners.  SSDI benefits, once approved, continue as long as the individual remains disabled or until he or she reaches the normal retirement age, at which time the benefits automatically convert to retirement benefits.  Periodically, SSA conducts “continuing disability reviews” (CDRs) to determine whether the individual is still disabled.  Twenty-four months after SSDI coverage begins, the disabled worker is also entitled to Medicare coverage.
  • Poverty Reduction:   According to the nonpartisan GAO, Poverty Rates for Elderly have Declined Faster than for other Groups
  • Payroll Taxes:  The Social Security system is sustained by payroll taxes of 12.4%—half paid by employers and half by employees (with self-employed individuals paying roughly the full amount).  But payroll taxes are assessed on income only up to a maximum cap: $118,500 in 2016.
    CRS: Increasing the Social Security Payroll Tax Base–Options and Effects on Tax Burdens

Key Facts About Social Security:

  • Provides monthly cash benefits to retired or disabled workers and their family members and to the family members of deceased workers.
  • 97% of Americans ages 60 – 89 either receive Social Security or will receive it.
  • 170 million workers are in Social Security-covered employment.
  • Payroll Tax: in 2017, employers and employees each pay 6.2% of earnings up to to $127,200.
  • Social Security dramatically cuts poverty among seniors; 41% would be in poverty w/o Social Security.
  • Social Security benefits are low compared with other advanced countries, replacing only 38% of past earnings.
  • Most elderly rely on Social Security for the majority of their income.
  • 3 million children receive Social Security as dependents of retired, disabled, or deceased workers.
  • Social Security Disability Insurance provides monthly benefits to insured disabled workers under the full retirement age (and to their eligible dependents) in amounts related to an individual’s work history and career-average earnings in jobs covered under Social Security.  SSDI beneficiaries are also eligible for Medicare following a 24-month waiting period.

Background and Resources: