Americans are concerned and even afraid for their retirement security. And the news headlines often don’t make them feel better. The latest is a claim from the National institute for Retirement Security that “A plurality of older Americans, 40.2 percent, only receive income from Social Security in retirement.” If true that’s very worrying. But does this frightening factoid hold up?
The NIRS report’s data source is the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (the SIPP). The SIPP surveys households by asking them a wide variety of questions, including the sources of their income. From the SIPP, NIRS declares that 40.2 percent of retirees receive all of their income from Social Security.
And yet, a 2017 study by researchers at the Social Security Administration, also using the SIPP, found that only 19.6% of Americans 65 and over received at least 90% of their total incomes from Social Security. That’s less than half the share of retirees than NIRS claims and SSA measures dependence using a lower bar—90% of total income rather than NIRS’s 100%. Clearly, there’s a conflict.
Moreover, a second 2017 study, from two Census Bureau economists, analyzed retirement incomes using IRS tax records, which are more accurate than households’ responses to a survey. The Census Bureau study found that only 12% of Americans aged 65+ received 90% or more of their income from Social Security. Again, it’s not clear how that is compatible with NIRS’s claim that over 40% of retirees receive all their income from Social Security.
From a policy perspective, one-fifth of retirees being heavily dependent on Social Security isn’t a huge problem: the poorest fifth of workers are indeed quite poor, and Social Security was designed to provide a retirement benefit for workers who can’t easily save on their own.
You can find the full article, including a discussion of why the NIRS data might be wrong, here.