There are plenty of opinions on the future of Social Security. Some experts believe the system as we know it will disappear or be drastically reduced. Others think not much will change beyond a small modification such as a delayed retirement age or slightly higher Social Security tax rate.
However, most Americans are relying on Social Security to provide at least some of their income in retirement. We asked a couple of our experts whether this is a safe bet, and here is what they had to say.
Much has been made of the financial crisis in the Social Security system, and many people fear the federal program won't be around to provide them with any financial support in retirement. Yet while relying on every penny of Social Security benefits that current law provides might be slightly dangerous, it would be a huge overreaction to assume those benefits will disappear.
Even under the pessimistic assessments of the Social Security Trustees Report, which recently said the program's assets will be depleted by 2033, Social Security would continue to pay benefits of more than $0.75 on the dollar. So if you want to build in a safety factor to assess how much you personal savings you will need to supplement Social Security, anticipating only 75% of the current program benefit should prepare you to weather any but the most extreme of the worst-case scenarios. Moreover, if future developments raise the full retirement age or limit benefits in certain circumstances, having already assumed a larger benefit reduction will turn out to have been unduly pessimistic, putting you in even better shape when you retire.
Whether you can count on Social Security (in its current form) depends on how far away from retirement you are.
For starters, people who plan to retire within the next 20 years or so should be fine. As Dan points out above, a recent report said that the program's assets will be depleted in about 18 years, but will still pay out 75% of the current benefit levels, even with the most pessimistic assumptions.
As far as Americans under age 40 are concerned, the future is not quite as clear. In order to sustain the program, the Social Security Administration will eventually have to raise the retirement age, reduce benefits, increase Social Security taxes, or do a combination of the three. If you're in your 20s now, it's entirely possible the full retirement age will be well into the 70s by the time you get there, and that benefits will be much smaller than they are today.
Finally, I don't recommend that anyone (especially young people) rely on Social Security as a major source of retirement income. There is simply too much uncertainty, and with the retirement saving options available (IRAs and other plans), there is no reason not to build up your own nest egg.