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6 Ways Social Security Has Changed Over Time

By Maurie Backman - Jul 23, 2017 at 8:04PM

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Social Security provides critical benefits to countless Americans. Here's how this important program has evolved since its inception.

Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act back in 1935, millions of Americans have been benefiting from one of the most crucial programs our country has ever introduced. But a lot has changed in the program's nearly 82-year history. Here's a brief overview of how Social Security has evolved over time.

1. It now benefits more people

Back when Social Security was introduced, its purpose was to provide retired workers with some form of continuous income. But in 1939, amendments were made to the program that have since allowed spouses and minor children of retired or deceased workers to receive benefits as well. Furthermore, disability benefits were tacked on in 1956, thus allowing more Americans to sustain themselves financially. Then, in 1965, Medicare was introduced under the Social Security Act, which, to this day, provides health coverage for millions of retirees.

A senior man sits on a sofa and smiles, holding a newspaper in one hand and reading glasses in another.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

2. Full retirement age has been pushed back

Though your Social Security benefits are calculated based on what you earned during your top 35 working years, you're not eligible to collect your full benefit until you reach what's known as full retirement age (FRA). Your FRA is based on your year of birth, and if you were born in 1960 or later, that age is 67. But workers didn't always have to wait that long to get their hands on their full benefits. Those born in 1937 or earlier reached FRA at 65, while those born between 1938 and 1943 hit FRA at 65 and a number of months.

3. Benefits have increased

The average current Social Security enrollee collects $1,360 a month, and for those who were substantial earners during their careers, the maximum monthly benefit at full retirement age is $2,687. But that's a far cry from what the program first paid out. Back in 1942, the average monthly benefit was just $17.50. That's a mere $263 in today's dollars.

4. Cost-of-living adjustments have been implemented

When Social Security was first established, recipients were only granted a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) when Congress approved such payments. In fact, workers received the same benefit amount for 10 years until the first raise was applied. That all changed, however, in 1972, when automatic COLAs were approved going forward.

Of course, beneficiaries haven't gotten a COLA every year since then. COLAs are based on consumer price increases, and because gas prices fell in 2015, recipients saw no increase in 2016. But for the most part, enrollees have gotten COLAs throughout the years -- notably, a 14.3% boost in 1980.

5. It's all electronic

Back in the day, signing up for Social Security meant going to a local office and waiting to fill out the right paperwork. Nowadays, seniors don't have to so much as leave the house to register for benefits. Those eligible for Social Security can enroll online and avoid the wait times that come with visiting an office or even dialing a phone number.

Furthermore, whereas Social Security recipients used to collect monthly checks in the mail, these days, all benefits are submitted and received electronically. Enrollees can either collect benefits via direct deposit into a bank account, or a prepaid debit card. This not only makes it easier to track payments, but it also helps reduce the risks associated with lost or misplaced checks.

6. Its rulebook has grown exponentially

Working Americans and beneficiaries alike tend to bemoan the fact that Social Security is so confusing. And rightfully so. As the program has advanced over the years, so, too, have its guidelines, and currently, Social Security has over 2,700 distinct rules on the books for enrollees to follow. Of course, most folks won't come close to reading up on every little detail surrounding the program, but those who want to maximize their benefits should, at the very least, get a basic idea of how Social Security works.

Clearly, Social Security has undergone some pretty significant changes since its introduction. Whether you're getting close to retirement or simply want to plan for the future, it pays to read up Social Security so that you can make the most of your benefits when the time comes to collect them.

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