Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Early Social Security Benefits and the Labor Participation Rate

Marketwatch reported today on the percentage of Social Security recipients taking "early" benefits from Social Security. A surprisingly high 73% of recipients or nearly three out of four, now elect to take benefits prior to full retirement age, thereby significantly reducing the benefits that they will receive in retirement.  

Full retirement age for those born between the years 1943-1954 is defined as age 66, with the date gradually increasing.  For those born 1960 or later, 67 becomes the new full retirement age. Social security benefits are available to those retiring earlier than these ages, but at a reduction of 13% for those electing benefits at 65, the age most commonly associated with retirement (reduced benefits are actually available as early as age 62, but at a 30% reduction). For those waiting until age 70 to take social security, benefits increase each year by 8% relative to the full retirement age, up until age 70 when they are capped. The benefit claimed at any of these ages, is then fixed for the duration of the person's retirement.

These changes were put in place as part of the Social Security Amendments of 1983 (HR 1900) when the Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund first became concerned about the solvency of the Trust relative to future benefit payments. Interestingly, this act also expanded Social Security benefits to members of Congress and the White House and instituted the taxing of benefit payments to recipients. What Congress giveth with one hand, they taketh away with the other.

Most retirement planners advise people to wait as long as possible to claim benefits. But the point of this article is not to advise people on their selection, but rather to examine the social and economic issues that drive behavior. There are several reasons why people might take early, reduced benefits including illness, or because they believe they can invest the funds at a higher rate of return. The most common reason, though, is that they simply need the money. But there is another reason to consider: Social Security benefits are not guaranteed. The Trustees of the Fund can change the level of benefits going forward at any time.

Of these reasons, the fact that people need the money is both the most likely explanation and the most telling of the limp recovery following the financial crisis.  Along with the significant rise in disability claims over the past six years (and the vast expansion of the student loan program) early social security benefits likely explains the last piece of the puzzle in the pronounced and lengthy decline in the labor participation rate.