Starting Social Security early typically means getting a smaller benefit for the rest of your life. The penalty is steep: Someone who applies this year at age 62 would see their monthly benefit check reduced by nearly 30%.
Many Americans have little choice but to accept the diminished payments. Even before the pandemic, about half of retirees said they quit working earlier than they’d planned, often due to job loss or health issues. Some have enough retirement savings to delay claiming Social Security, but many don’t. And now, with unemployment approaching Depression-era levels, claiming early may be the best of bad options for older people who can’t find a job.
But the penalty for early filing, and the bonus for delaying your application, are based on old formulas that don’t reflect gains in life expectancy, says economist Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. The result is a system that unfairly penalizes early filers, unjustly benefits late filers — and hurts lower-income people the most.
“Low-income people disproportionately collect benefits at 62 and their benefits are cut too much, and high-income people disproportionately delay claiming till 70 and their benefits are increased too much,” Munnell says. “So you penalize the low-income and you benefit the high-income.”
THE PROBLEM STARTED OFF AS A SOLUTION
Originally, Social Security had one retirement age: 65. In 1956, Congress authorized a reduced benefit for women, to allow them to retire at the same time as their typically older husbands. The reduced benefit option was extended to men in 1961.