Despite decreased benefits, many Americans take Social Security early
CHICAGO — Taking Social Security benefits early comes with a price, yet more than 4 in 10 Americans who are 50 and over say they'll dip into the program before reaching full retirement age.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday found that 44 percent report Social Security will be their biggest source of income during their retirement years.
Full benefits begin at 65 or 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954. Americans can begin collecting as early as age 62, but with benefits reduced by up to 30 percent, according to the Social Security Administration.
"One thing we know for certain is that claiming early can have long-term repercussions on your fiscal security as you age," said Gary Koenig, vice president of Financial security at the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Koenig said benefits increase significantly for those who wait, rising around 8 percent more for each additional year past age 66 and up to 70, when benefits max out.
"So we encourage people to delay as long as possible," he said.
But waiting is a luxury many Americans don't have.
Ken Chrzastek of Chicago began drawing Social Security benefits at age 62 and pulled $50,000 out of an IRA after losing a retail job two years ago. He has been unable to find even part-time work. "Hiring a 62-year-old is a liability for a company," he said.
The poll found that Americans 50 and over have multiple sources of income for retirement but that Social Security is the most common by far. Eighty-six percent say they have or will have Social Security income. More than half had a retirement account such as a 401(k), 403(b), or an IRA. Slightly less had other savings. About 43 percent had a traditional pension.
The average age at which people expect to start or have started collecting Social Security benefits is 64. Just 9 percent said they would wait until after they turned 70.
While the retirement age has been rising in recent years, particularly for women, the average American still retires relatively early, at age 64 for men and age 62 for women, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Charles Jeszeck, director of education, workforce and income security for the Government Accountability Office, said there is no one right answer to when people should take Social Security, especially since increases in life expectancy are not spread out evenly between the rich and poor, or between ethnic groups.
Included in any discussion about Social Security are lingering questions about its solvency.
The Social Security trust fund has been running a surplus every year since 1984. Those surpluses are forecast to stop sometime around 2020, as more boomers start claiming benefits.
The Social Security Administration says interest income from the fund should be able to bridge this gap until 2034. At that point, without changes, payments could shrink but not disappear.
Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist, said that people taking benefits early — or late — should have no impact on the trust fund. "It costs the government roughly the same amount," he said.
Among the presidential candidates, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have called for an expansion of Social Security. Donald Trump said during a debate in March, "It's my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is."
Many Americans worry that they won't have enough to live on once they stop working, the poll said.
Among those with incomes under $50,000, 58 percent say they feel more anxious than secure about the amount of savings they have for retirement. People with higher incomes appear less anxious, but still 40 percent of those with incomes of $100,000 or more worry whether their savings will be sufficient.
Alison Cowen, 57, said she doesn't see any path for her to retire ever. "Not unless a miracle happens," she laughed sarcastically. "I just don't have enough to live on for the rest of my life."
The poll said a quarter of workers over 50 say they never plan to retire, a sentiment more common among lower-income workers.
Cowen, a saleswoman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said she didn't save that much when she was younger, and a messy divorce 10 years ago meant she had to start over. "I've got $20,000 in the bank, but I would need to figure out a way increase that substantially before I could ever think of retiring," she said.
Editor's Note: Adam Allington is studying aging and workforce issues as part of a 10-month fellowship at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which joins NORC's independent research and AP journalism. The fellowship is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The AP-NORC Center survey was conducted March 8-27 by NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It involved online and telephone interviews with 1,075 people aged 50 and older nationwide, most of whom are members of NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.