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Social Security Protects Many From Poverty

Benefits crucial for minorities and women, AARP says

More than one-third of older Americans would be living in poverty if it weren't for Social Security benefits, according to an AARP study.

As many as 33 percent of older African Americans, 30 percent of Hispanics and 37 percent of whites and 19 percent of Asians escaped poverty because of government's monthly retirement payout. But older white women benefited the most — 40 percent would be impoverished if not for Social Security, the study, which was released in September, found.

Single adults age 65 and older were considered impoverished by the U.S. Census Bureau if their income was below $10,289 in 2009. For couples 65 and older, poverty was defined as an income below $12,982.

As many as one in four African Americans, one in five Hispanics and one in six women lived solely on Social Security in 2008, the study found. One in 10 Asian Americans and one in eight white adults also relied on it exclusively for retirement income.

"Social Security was intended to provide a floor of income for all Americans, but it has always been critically important to those who have few sources of other income," said Dave Certner, legislative policy director at AARP. "Social Security has been particularly important for low-income earners, including women and minorities."

Among those who relied on Social Security retirement benefits for at least half of their family income in 2008:

  • 53 percent were women.
  • 51 percent were white.
  • 50 percent were African American.
  • 44 percent were Hispanic.
  • 28 percent were Asian American.

In general, African Americans and Hispanics were less likely to receive Social Security income than were whites. Eighty-four percent of African Americans and 78 percent of Hispanics received it as part of their family income, compared with 91 percent for whites.

White and Asian American families collected the highest median Social Security benefit — $17,900 and $15,600, respectively. For Hispanic and African American families, the median benefit was about $13,000.

A gap in lifetime earnings contributed to much of the difference in Social Security income between the groups, according to the study. It noted that older Hispanic and Asian families include high proportions of immigrants, who are likely to have shorter earnings histories in the United States.

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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