When employers are talking to employees about retirement readiness, Social Security benefits should figure into the conversation, particularly for those nearing retirement.

“Perhaps the greatest Social Security deficit in this country is the lack of education around the retirement benefits of the program, which presents an opportunity and responsibility to financial professionals,” says Michael Fanning, executive vice president for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company’s U.S. Insurance Group. “With millions of Americans nearing retirement each year, many may be at risk of underutilizing a critical component of their retirement income stream.”  

Americans don’t understand how Social Security works, according to a survey by MassMutual that attempted to gauge what people know about the program. Only 8% of those surveyed considered themselves to be knowledgeable about Social Security and only 28% of those surveyed received a passing grade when asked basic questions about Social Security retirement benefits.

 Nearly everyone held misconceptions about Social Security.

Also see: Senator calls for Social Security expansions, not cuts

The findings also showed gaps in people’s knowledge about Social Security eligibility, which could negatively impact how they plan for and save for retirement.

Three-quarters of survey respondents thought that being an American citizen was necessary to receive Social Security benefits, which is incorrect, according to MassMutual.

Seventy-one percent thought that full Social Security retirement age is 65, when the age actually varies depending on when a person was born. More than half, or 55%, incorrectly believe they can continue working while collecting full Social Security retirement benefits, regardless of their age, the survey found.

According to the research, Americans remain optimistic about the future of Social Security. More than three out of five surveyed (63%) believe Social Security will be available to them when they retire, with one-quarter of those surveyed strongly holding that belief. However, less than half (45%) think the program will have sufficient funding when they retire. This may be why only 39% expect to rely more on Social Security than their personal savings or income in retirement, with just 15% expecting to rely solely on Social Security.

Also see: Employees lack awareness to maximize Social Security benefits

“Americans who lack the proper knowledge and information about Social Security may be putting their retirement planning in jeopardy,” says Phil Michalowski, vice president of MassMutual’s U.S. Insurance Group. “In fact, many may be leaving Social Security retirement benefits they’re entitled to on the table, or incorrectly assuming what benefits may be available in retirement.”  

KRC Research conducted the online survey, on behalf of MassMutual, from Feb. 26 to March 2, 2015. It polled 1,513 Americans over the age of 18.

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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