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Myths and Truths About Social Security

Exploding 5 misconceptions that threaten the system

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Learn the facts about Social Security. — C.J. Burton/Corbis

It happened during the stock boom of the 1990s, and it is happening again. Social Security is coming under attack. The first challenge arose from hope — that savers would get more retirement income for their money if they bought stocks. But the idea of privatization was not popular with the public.

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Now, the attack comes from fear ­ ­ — that Social Security has serious financial problems and can only fail. Younger people lean more toward change than older people do. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll conducted a year ago found that 60 percent of adults who aren't retired expect to get nothing — zero — from Social Security in their older age.

They're mistaken. As misinformation and mistrust grow, however, it becomes important to explore — and explode — several Social Security myths that endanger the system's public support.

Myth No. 1: Social Security is going bankrupt. No, it's not. Even in the unlikely event that nothing changes and the program's entire surplus runs out in 2033, as projected, checks would keep coming. Payroll taxes at current rates would cover 77 percent of all the future benefits promised. That's true for young and old alike, and includes inflation adjustments.

Myth No. 2: I'd be better off if I'd kept my Social Security taxes in my own investment account. Hmmm ­ ­ — you're saying that you'd faithfully put that money aside, every year of your working life, in a mix of stocks and bonds, without ever skipping a year, drawing on your nest egg or selling when the market dropped? Few such paragons exist.

You'd need to invest far more than you probably realize to match the benefits Social Security pays. As an example, take a 65-year-old couple with a single breadwinner who earned the average wage. At retirement, they'd currently get about $2,170 a month, plus inflation adjustments, for life, the Urban Institute reports.

To equal that sum in private savings, they'd need to have about $580,000, says Michael Kitces, director of research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, and the money might last only 30 years. How many average earners are likely to save that much?

Next: Social Security isn't just for the retired. >>

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