Social Security: A Primer

A Brief History

Social Security is a federal program that taxes workers’ income in order to provide benefits to retired people, those who are unemployed, disabled persons, and the families of retired, disabled, or deceased workers.

Today’s program was born out of the economic hardships of the 1920s and 30s. As industrial jobs replaced agriculture, traditional means of economic security vanished. During the Great Depression, unemployment exceeded 25 percent. People asked the government to save families from joblessness and poverty-ridden old age.

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. This law created a social insurance program designed to pay workers age 65 or older an income after retirement as well as provide general welfare benefits.

Types of Benefits

The main types of Social Security benefits are retirement, spousal and survivor, disability, Medicare, and Supplemental Security Income.

Retirement, Spousal, and Survivor Benefits

Anyone who has earned 40 credits toward Social Security can begin receiving retirement benefits at age 62. You can earn up to four credits per year by working and paying Social Security taxes. Your benefit is based on your contributions and the age at which you start collecting.

A person can collect retirement benefits based on a spouse’s record without affecting the spouse’s retirement payment. A widow or widower may qualify for survivor benefits based on the amount the late spouse was receiving or eligible to receive when he or she died. Children and dependent parents may also be eligible.


People who can’t work because they have a medical condition that is expected to last at least one year or result in death are eligible to collect disability benefits. The person must have worked long enough to qualify. Generally, 40 credits are needed, but younger workers may qualify with fewer credits.


Medicare is a medical insurance program for people age 65 or older. Those with employer-provided health insurance will want to ask the insurance company how signing up for Medicare will affect those benefits.

Supplemental Security Income

Disabled adults and children who have limited income may receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. People 65 and older without disabilities who meet the financial limits are also eligible.

How to Apply

Those interested in further information should visit the official website of the U.S. Social Security Administration at Individuals can apply for the majority of benefits online.