The average annual Social Security retirement benefit in 2009 was $13,406.40, slightly above the $10,289 federal poverty line for individuals age 65 and older, but less than the minimum wage. While modest in size, Social Security benefits comprise a substantial share of household income for most elderly recipients. Originally designed to complement savings and retirement income, Social Security has instead become the primary source of income among this group.
According to 2008 data, for the poorest 40 percent of 65-and-older households, Social Security payouts constitute more than four-fifths of total income. Even retirement-age middle- and upper-middle-class households rely heavily on Social Security, with benefits making up nearly two-thirds of middle-class household incomes and more than two-fifths of upper-middle-class household incomes. The highest income group relies less on Social Security, but that is largely due to the fact that almost half of their income comes from earnings, meaning that they are still working.
Social Security benefits are not a windfall, but a lifeline. With benefits so modest, Congress should be focused on raising them, not cutting them by reducing the cost-of-living adjustment or raising the retirement age.
Note: The data used in this snapshot is from A young person’s guide to Social Security