En español | Social Security has become increasingly critical to the livelihood of a majority of retirees as pension plans disappear, retirement plans take on more risk and asset values fluctuate in a gloomy economy, according to a new report.
While it's been widely accepted that women rely heavily on Social Security for much of their retirement income, the report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research shows that men are in the same boat.
Between 1999 and 2009, the number of men age 65 and older relying on Social Security for at least 80 percent of their income grew dramatically from 3.8 million to 5.7 million. For women in that age group, the figure grew by a smaller percentage" from 8.2 million to 10.3 million" primarily because more women had a greater reliance on it to begin with.
Women generally earn less than men during their working years. They are also less likely to have pension income in retirement, making Social Security benefits critical to their survival.
"Social Security is the one income stream that is secure and does not fluctuate with the marketplace," says Heidi Hartmann, president of the institute and the report's lead author.
The report was released in January, adding to the debate over Social Security's future. Policymakers have proposed reducing benefits and raising the retirement age, amid other changes.
Social Security kept more than 14 million Americans age 65 and older out of poverty in 2009, the report said. Without it, 58 percent of women and 48 percent of men over the age of 75 would have fallen below the poverty line.
The report affirms trends for American retirees that began at least 20 years ago -- they are working longer, depending less on company-sponsored pensions and assets, and relying more on Social Security to fund their later years. It also pointed out the declining wealth among people 65-plus following two recessions --one beginning in 2001 and the more severe downturn that started in December 2007.
Sara Rix, a senior strategic adviser for AARP, says the current economic climate, with its high unemployment rate and uncertain returns on investments, makes for an unpredictable future for older Americans.
"Social Security is as, or more, important today than it was even a decade ago because other sources of income have become so uncertain," she says. "If the recent recession has done anything, it has underscored the importance of Social Security to older Americans, many of whom have found it a lifesaver after job loss."
Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.