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The Role of Benefits in Income and Poverty

Social Security is the major source of income for older Americans. About nine in 10 Americans aged 65 and older received Social Security in 2008. For two out of three of those beneficiaries (66 percent) Social Security was more than half their total income. Social Security is a large share of income because many Americans age 65 and older lack significant income from other sources. Pensions (from private or government employment) were received by about half of married couples (from either the husband's or the wife's career). Among the unmarried, 42 percent of men and 34 percent of women had pensions.

Social Security is the sole source of income for about one in five (21 percent) people aged 65 and older. Certain subgroups are particularly reliant on Social Security. Of those age 65 and older, Social Security is the sole source of income for 43 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of African Americans, 21 percent of unmarried women and 28 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders.

Social Security plays an important role in keeping older Americans out of poverty. The poverty threshold was $10,400 for an individual and $14,000 for a couple in 2008. About one in 10 Americans age 65 and older is poor, by this measure. If they had to rely only on their income other than Social Security, nearly half would be poor.