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Social Security: Fears vs. Facts

What Social Security critics keep getting wrong

Myth #2: The Social Security trust fund assets are worthless.

Any surplus payroll taxes not used for current benefits are used to purchase special-issue, interest-paying Treasury bonds. In other words, the surplus in the Social Security trust fund has been loaned to the federal government for its general use — the reserve of $2.6 trillion is not a heap of cash sitting in a vault. These bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government, just as they are for other Treasury bondholders. However, Treasury will soon need to pay back these bonds. This will put pressure on the federal budget, according to Social Security's board of trustees. Even without any changes, Social Security can continue paying full benefits through 2033. After that, the revenue from payroll taxes will still cover about 75 percent of promised benefits.

Myth #3: I could invest better on my own.

Maybe you could, and maybe you couldn't. But the point of Social Security isn't to maximize the return on the payroll taxes you've contributed. Social Security is designed to be the one guaranteed part of your retirement income that can't be outlived or lost in the stock market. It's a secure base of income throughout your working life and retirement. And for many, it's a lifeline. Social Security provides the majority of income for at least half of Americans over age 65; it is 90 percent or more of income for 43 percent of singles and 22 percent of married couples. You can, and should, invest in a retirement fund like a 401(k) or an individual retirement account. Maybe you'll enjoy strong returns and avoid the market turmoil we have seen during the past decade. If not, you'll still have Social Security to fall back on.

As AARP The Magazine's personal finance columnist, Liz Weston offers advice on everything from car loans to home sales. Read more articles by Liz Weston.

Next: We want to know how you feel about Social Security. »

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