Social Security's special minimum benefit

Soc Secur Bull. 2001-2002;64(2):1-15.


Social Security's special minimum primary insurance amount (PIA) provision was enacted in 1972 to increase the adequacy of benefits for regular long-term, low-earning covered workers and their dependents or survivors. At the time, Social Security also had a regular minimum benefit provision for persons with low lifetime average earnings and their families. Concerns were rising that the low lifetime average earnings of many regular minimum beneficiaries resulted from sporadic attachment to the covered workforce rather than from low wages. The special minimum benefit was seen as a way to reward regular, low-earning workers without providing the windfalls that would have resulted from raising the regular minimum benefit to a much higher level. The regular minimum benefit was subsequently eliminated for workers reaching age 62, becoming disabled, or dying after 1981. Under current law, the special minimum benefit will phase out over time, although it is not clear from the legislative history that this was Congress's explicit intent. The phaseout results from two factors: (1) special minimum benefits are paid only if they are higher than benefits payable under the regular PIA formula, and (2) the value of the regular PIA formula, which is indexed to wages before benefit eligibility, has increased faster than that of the special minimum PIA, which is indexed to inflation. Under the Social Security Trustees' 2000 intermediate assumptions, the special minimum benefit will cease to be payable to retired workers attaining eligibility in 2013 and later. Their benefits will always be larger under the regular benefit formula. As policymakers consider Social Security solvency initiatives--particularly proposals that would reduce benefits or introduce investment risk--interest may increase in restoring some type of special minimum benefit as a targeted protection for long-term low earners. Two of the three reform proposals offered by the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security would modify and strengthen the current-law special minimum benefit. Interest in the special minimum benefit may also increase because of labor force participation and marital trends that suggest that enhancing workers' benefits may be a more effective means of reducing older women's poverty rates than enhancing spousal or widow's benefits. By understanding the Social Security program's experience with the special minimum benefit, policymakers will be able to better anticipate the effectiveness of other initiatives to enhance benefits for long-term low earners. This article presents the most recent and comprehensive information available about the special minimum benefit in order to help policymakers make informed decisions about the provision's future. Highlights of the current special minimum benefit include the following: Very few persons receive the special minimum benefit. As of December 2001, about 134,000 workers and their dependents and survivors were entitled to a benefit based on the special minimum. Of those, only about 79,000 received a higher total benefit because of the special minimum; the other 55,000 were dually entitled. (In effect, when persons are eligible for more than one type of benefit--that is, they are dually eligible--the highest benefit payable determines total benefits. If the special minimum benefit is not the highest benefit payable, it does not increase total benefits paid.) As of February 2000, retired workers who were special minimum beneficiaries with unreduced benefits and were not dually entitled were receiving, on average, a monthly benefit of $510 per month. That amount is approximately $2,000 less than the annual poverty threshold for an aged individual. Special minimum benefits provide small increases in total benefits. For special minimum beneficiaries who were not dually entitled as of December 2001, the average special minimum monthly PIA was just $39 higher than the regular PIA. Most special minimum beneficiaries are female retired workers. About 90 percent of special minimum beneficiaries are retired workers, and 77 percent of those retired workers are women. The special minimum benefit has never provided poverty-level benefits. Maximum payable special minimum benefits (unreduced for early retirement) equal 85 percent of the poverty level for aged persons, down from 96 percent at the provision's inception. Major public policy considerations raised by this analysis include the following: Social Security benefits alone do not protect all long-term low earners from poverty. Low earners with 30 years of earnings equal to the annual full-time minimum wage who retired in selected years from 1982 to 2000 received benefits that were 3.9 percent to 20.1 percent below the poverty threshold, depending on the year they retired. For 40-year earners, the range was 3.9 percent to 15.3 percent below poverty. Furthermore, in 1993, 29.2 percent of retired-worker beneficiaries who were poor had 30 or more years of coverage. The size of the universe of persistently low earners with significant attachment to the covered workforce is unknown. Available research that examines two 28-month periods suggests that only 4 percent to 6 percent of full-time, full-period earners had below-minimum wages for more than 12 consecutive months. Targeting enhanced benefits only toward long-term, regular workers who are low earners is difficult under the current Social Security program. All else being equal, if total wage-indexed lifetime covered earnings are the same for both a full-career low earner and for a high earner who has worked only occasionally, then their Social Security benefits will be identical. Social Security has no information on number of hours worked, hourly wages, or other information that could distinguish between two such persons.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Insurance Benefits*
  • Public Policy
  • Social Security* / economics
  • Social Security* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • United States