By MIKE BENBOW
The statements that the Social Security Administration has been sending to workers 25 and older for the past year have been so well received that the agency will do more to help people plan for retirement, Social Security commissioner Kenneth Apfel said.
In an interview while visiting Seattle earlier this week, Apfel said his agency is renewing "our role as a public educator" to help people prepare for life after the daily grind.
"We have the ability in our Social Security statements to touch virtually any American in a way no agency has," Apfel said. "If you’re relying on Social Security for the vast majority of your retirement income, there’s got to be some serious thinking about when to retire. We’ve got to get people thinking about that early in the process."
Workers used to have to request a statement from Social Security to remind them of their work history and to determine what payments they would qualify for in retirement. During the past year, workers at least 25 years old have received one without asking. Some 133 million statements were sent out, at a cost of about $70 million.
They’ll continue to be sent out each year for the time being.
"It’s a very, very positive thing," Apfel said. "The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s helped people understand Social Security more."
Apfel said his agency hopes to continue to educate people about Social Security. Starting next month, workers 55 and older will receive a retirement planning insert with their Social Security statement.
What we have found is that by the time people come into our offices and are ready to retire, they find out they’ll get, say, $800 a month. They say, ‘Oh my heavens, that’s not very much,’ " Apfel said. "The new stuffer is aimed at getting people to think more about when to start claiming benefits."
The agency has also beefed up its Web site, www.ssa.govc, adding some online retirement calculators and a retirement planner. People can get a quick estimate of the likely amount of their monthly checks at retirement or fill out a detailed calculator for a more precise amount.
For now, workers who want the detailed calculation will have to take information from their mailed statement and plug it into an electronic form. But Apfel sees the day when the information will be available online.
The agency made that information available on the Internet about four years ago, but concerns that its security systems were easily penetrated caused it to abandon the effort.
"It’s not a question of whether it will go online, but when," Apfel said. "We need to make sure we have the right safety measures in place."
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