Social Security:

Program's Role in Helping Ensure Income Adequacy

GAO-02-62: Published: Nov 30, 2001. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 2001.

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Before Social Security, being old often meant being poor. Today, dependency on public assistance has dropped to a fraction of its Depression-era levels, and poverty rates among the elderly are now lower than for the population as a whole. At the same time, Social Security has become the single largest source of retirement income for more than 90 percent of persons aged 65 and older. Automatic adjustments were introduced in 1972 to reflect increases in the cost of living. Other program changes gradually increased social security coverage to larger portions of the workforce and extended eligibility to family members and disabled workers. Other benefit programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicare, and Medicaid, have also been added over the years. With regard to measuring income adequacy, various measures help examine different aspects of this concept, but no single measure can provide a complete picture. For various subgroups of beneficiaries that have lower lifetime earnings, poverty rates have also declined. Although the Social Security benefit formula favors lower lifetime earners, their lower earnings and work histories can leave them with incomes below the poverty level when they retire or become disabled. The outlook for future Social Security benefit levels and income adequacy depend on how the program's long-term financing imbalance is addressed, as well as on the measures used. GAO concludes that reductions in promised benefits and increases in program revenues will be needed to restore the program's long-term solvency and sustainability. Possible benefit changes might include adjustments to the benefit formula or reductions in cost-of-living increases. Possible revenue sources might include higher payroll taxes or transfers from the Treasury's general fund.

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