Social Security: Minimum Benefits




Social Security: Minimum Benefits
Updated September 10, 2020
Congressional Research Service
https://crsreports.congress.gov
R43615




Social Security: Minimum Benefits

Summary
Social Security’s special minimum benefit provision, also known as the Special Minimum
Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), is an alternative benefit formula that increases benefits paid to
workers who had low earnings for many years, and to their dependents and survivors. The Special
Minimum PIA is based on the number of years a person has worked with earnings at or above a
certain threshold, whereas the regular benefit formula is based on a worker’s average lifetime
earnings. The worker receives the higher of the two benefits. In 2019, about 32,092 of the 64
million Social Security recipients qualified for the minimum benefit.
However, the Special Minimum PIA has virtually no effect on the benefits paid to today’s new
retirees. Under current law, it grows with price levels, whereas the regular benefit is linked to
wages. Because wages generally grow faster than prices, the Special Minimum PIA affects fewer
beneficiaries every year. Beneficiaries who received higher benefits due to the provision had an
average increase to monthly benefits of about $46 in June 2013 (most recent data available). The
Social Security Administration (SSA) estimated that the provision would have no effect on
workers turning 62 in 2019 or later.
Some recent proposals would redesign the minimum benefit. This renewed interest has been
sparked by Social Security proposals that would reduce the regular benefit and by concern over
poverty rates among beneficiaries who had low wages throughout their careers. However, some
have suggested to allow the minimum benefit to phase out, arguing that the provision does not
accurately target the working poor, and that there are other programs that are more appropriate for
supplementing the incomes of low-income, low-asset people.
Increases in Social Security benefits targeted at lifetime low earners could be implemented in
various ways. For example, the current minimum benefit provision could be revised to assist
more beneficiaries, the regular benefit could be increased for people who worked for many years
at low earnings, or a fixed-dollar benefit could be introduced. Similar provisions could also be
introduced through other programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
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Contents
Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Determining Regular Social Security Retirement Benefits ............................................................. 1
Determining the Special Minimum PIA .......................................................................................... 2
Years of Coverage ..................................................................................................................... 2
Special Minimum PIA Benefit Amount .................................................................................... 3
Benefits for Family Members ................................................................................................... 4
Potential Adjustments to the Special Minimum PIA ................................................................ 4
Dually Entitled Beneficiaries .................................................................................................... 5
The Special Minimum PIA Has Little Effect on Current Beneficiaries .......................................... 6
History of the Social Security Minimum Benefit Provision ............................................................ 8
Original Structure of the Social Security Minimum Benefit (1939 to 1981) ............................ 8
The Special Minimum PIA (1973 to the Present) ..................................................................... 9
Arguments For and Against a Minimum Benefit Provision ........................................................... 11
Arguments for a Minimum Benefit Provision .......................................................................... 11
Arguments for Phasing Out the Social Security Minimum Benefit ........................................ 12
Considering Minimum Benefit Proposals ..................................................................................... 14
Who Receives the Minimum Benefit Under the Proposal? .................................................... 15
Proposals Based on Years of Work ................................................................................... 15
Proposals Based on Beneficiary Status ............................................................................. 17
What is the Minimum Benefit Amount Under the Proposal? ................................................. 17
Benefit Growth: Prices or Wages? .................................................................................... 18
Partial Benefits: Linear or Nonlinear Proration? .............................................................. 19
Interactions Between Social Security Minimum Benefits and Other Government

Programs ........................................................................................................................ 19
Minimum Benefit Options and Estimated Effects ......................................................................... 20
Options Based on Number of Years of Work .......................................................................... 20
Options to Enhance the Regular Social Security Benefit ........................................................ 23
A Fixed-Dollar Benefit ............................................................................................................ 24
Alternative Strategies for Addressing Poverty Among Long-Term Low-Wage Workers.............. 25

Figures
Figure 1. Annual Percentage Change in Average Prices and Wages, 1985-2018 ............................ 4
Figure 2. Number and Percentage of Social Security Beneficiaries Affected by the Special
Minimum PIA .............................................................................................................................. 7
Figure 3. Number of Families Receiving the Special Minimum PIA, as of June 2013 .................. 7
Figure 4. The Regular PIA and the Special Minimum PIA for a Low Earner with 30
YOCs ............................................................................................................................................ 8
Figure 5. Basic Minimum Benefit Amounts .................................................................................. 24

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Tables
Table 1. Special Minimum PIA Initial Monthly Benefit Amounts, 2020 ........................................ 3
Table 2. Illustrative Examples: Workers Earning at and below the YOC Earnings
Threshold .................................................................................................................................... 13

Contacts
Author Information ........................................................................................................................ 27
Acknowledgments ......................................................................................................................... 27

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Social Security: Minimum Benefits

Introduction
Social Security’s minimum benefit provision, the Special Minimum Primary Insurance Amount
(PIA), is an alternative benefit formula that increases benefits paid to workers who had low
earnings for many years and to their dependents and survivors. Unlike the regular Social Security
benefit formula, which is based on a worker’s average lifetime earnings, the Special Minimum
PIA is based on the number of years a person has worked with earnings at or above a certain
threshold. Beneficiaries receive the higher of the two benefit amounts. Because of the way regular
Social Security benefits and the Special Minimum PIA are computed, the number of recipients
who qualify for the Special Minimum PIA has been decreasing. In 2019, about 32,092(or 0.05%)
of the 64 million Social Security recipients qualified for the minimum benefit.1
This report explains how the Special Minimum PIA functions under current law and provides
some historical background on minimum benefit provisions in the Social Security Act. It then
presents arguments for and against expanding the Special Minimum PIA, discusses elements to
be considered in proposals for change, and describes some specific options for increasing benefits
paid to people with lifetime low earnings or low income.
Determining Regular Social Security Retirement
Benefits
To be eligible for a Social Security retired-worker benefit, a worker generally needs 40 earnings
credits (also called quarters of coverage).2 A worker may earn up to four earnings credits per
calendar year. In 2020, a worker earns one credit for each $1,410 of covered earnings (i.e.,
earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes),3 up to a maximum of four credits for covered
earnings of $5,640 or more. The primary insurance amount (PIA) is the benefit a worker would
receive if the worker elects to begin receiving retirement benefits at the worker’s full retirement
age
(FRA). The PIA is based on a summary measure of the worker’s lifetime earnings, called the
average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). To compute a worker’s AIME, the worker’s earnings
are converted into current-dollar terms by indexing each year of earnings to historical wage
growth (i.e., National Average Wage Index or AWI), and the sum of the highest 35 years of
indexed earnings are divided by 35 to determine career-average annual earnings.4 This amount is
then divided by 12, to get a monthly amount. If a worker has fewer than 35 years of covered
earnings (because of time out of the labor force for family caregiving, spells of unemployment, or
other reasons), years of no earnings are entered as zeros.

1 Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 2020 (in progress), Table 5.A1 and Table 5.A8 at
https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/supplement/2020/5a.pdf.
2 Fewer quarters of coverage may be required for Social Security disability benefits, depending on the age at which the
worker became disabled. For more information, see CRS Report R44948, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
and Supplemental Security Income (SSI): Eligibility, Benefits, and Financing
.
3 Approximately 7% of workers in 2019 are not subject to Social Security payroll taxes and are therefore not covered
by Social Security. Workers who are exempt from Social Security payroll taxes are primarily (1) state and local
government workers, (2) certain religious group workers, or (3) certain noncitizen workers. See Social Security
Administration, Fact Sheet, January 2020, at https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/FACTS/fs2019_12.pdf.
4 The indexing of wages happens at the age of 62, and the base year used for indexing is the year the worker turns 60.
Earnings after age 60 are entered into the calculation at their nominal, or unindexed, value. Social Security AWI is the
National Average Wage Index, available at https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/AWI.html.
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Next, the regular Social Security benefit formula is applied to the worker’s AIME to get the PIA.
Two dollar thresholds, known as bend points, are used to divide the worker’s AIME into three
segments; in 2020, the two bend points are $960 and $5,785. Three conversion factors—90%,
32%, and 15%—are applied to the three different segments of the worker’s AIME to compute the
basic monthly benefit; 90% is applied to the $0-$960 segment, 32% to the $961-$5,785 segment,
and 15% to the over-$5,785 segment. Because the higher conversion factors apply to the lower
earnings segment, the benefit formula is progressive. That is, it replaces a higher percentage of
the pre-retirement earnings of workers with low career-average earnings than for workers with
high career-average earnings.5
Social Security also provides auxiliary benefits to eligible family members of a Social Security-
insured retired, disabled, or deceased worker. Benefits payable to family members are equal to a
specified percentage of the worker’s PIA. For example, a spouse can receive up to 50% of the
worker’s PIA and a widow(er) can receive up to 100% of the deceased worker’s PIA.6
Determining the Special Minimum PIA
Unlike the regular Social Security benefit, which is based on covered career-average earnings, the
Special Minimum PIA is based on the number of years that a worker spends in covered
employment and has earnings at or above a certain threshold. Beneficiaries receive the higher of
the regular benefit and the Special Minimum PIA.
Years of Coverage
A year of coverage (YOC) for the purposes of computing the Special Minimum PIA is a year
during which the worker has covered earnings more than a specified threshold. Different from the
required amount for earnings credits (or quarters of coverage) under regular benefits, since 1991,
the annual threshold for a YOC under the Special Minimum PIA has equaled 15% of the “old
law” contribution and benefit base.7 The old law contribution and benefit base is indexed to
increases with the national average wage. As a result, YOC thresholds for the Special Minimum
PIA are indexed to wage growth. The 2020 YOC threshold is $15,345. In 2020, the earnings
required for one earnings credit, or one quarter of coverage, is $1,410. As with the earnings
credit, the YOC thresholds create a “cliff” effect. If a worker’s earnings in a year are even one
dollar short of the threshold for that year, a YOC is not credited. Because the YOC threshold is
much higher than one earnings credit, it would be generally harder for a low-earning worker to
qualify for a YOC threshold under the Special Minimum PIA than one earnings credit under the
Social Security regular benefit.

5 For more details, see CRS Report R43542, How Social Security Benefits Are Computed: In Brief.
6 For more information on auxiliary benefits, see CRS Report R41479, Social Security: Revisiting Benefits for Spouses
and Survivors
.
7 From 1951 through 1978, the threshold equaled 25% of the Social Security contribution and benefit base, and from
1979 through 1990, it was 25% of the “old law” contribution and benefit base. The Social Security contribution and
benefit base is the annual limit on the amount of a worker’s earnings that are subject to the Social Security payroll tax
in a given year. The same annual limit applies when these earnings are used in a benefit computation. For earnings in
2020, the current-law contribution and benefit base is $137,700. The old law contribution and benefit base is the base in
effect before the Social Security Amendments of 1977 (P.L. 95-216). In 2020, the “old law” contribution and benefit
base is $102,300. For a historical series of the year of coverage amounts and the old law contribution and benefit base,
see Social Security Administration, “Old-law Base and Year of Coverage,” at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/
COLA/yoc.html.
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Special Minimum PIA Benefit Amount
The Special Minimum PIA benefit amount depends only on the number of a worker’s YOCs. A
worker must have at least 11 YOCs to be eligible for the benefit, which creates another benefit
cliff as those with 10 years receive no special minimum benefit. For those with 11 years, the
Special Minimum PIA monthly benefit is $42.50 in 2020. It increases by about $44 for each
additional YOC (see Table 1).8 YOCs in excess of 30 do not increase the Special Minimum PIA
amount; a person with 30 years of coverage in 2020 would qualify for a Special Minimum PIA of
$886.40.
Table 1. Special Minimum PIA Initial Monthly Benefit Amounts, 2020
Number of Years of
Monthly Primary
Coverage
Insurance Amount
11
$42.50
12
86.90
13
131.40
14
175.70
15
219.70
16
264.40
17
308.80
18
353.20
19
397.60
20
442.20
21
486.60
22
530.70
23
575.90
24
620.20
25
664.20
26
709.40
27
753.20
28
797.60
29
842.10
30
886.40
Source: Social Security Administration, http://www.socialsecurity.gov/cgi-bin/smt.cgi.
Although the amount required to earn a YOC is indexed to wage growth, the initial Special
Minimum PIA benefit amounts are indexed to price inflation, in contrast to regular Social
Security benefits, which are indexed to wage inflation.9 As shown in Figure 1, wages generally

8 For additional details on how the Special Minimum PIA is computed, see Social Security Administration, Program
Operations Manual System
, RS 00640.075, at http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/links/0300640075.
9 The law did not originally provide for updating the initial benefit table for wage or price inflation when the Special
Minimum PIA was enacted in 1972. The law originally set the monthly benefit equal to $8.50 per year of coverage,
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grow faster than prices, so regular benefits have grown faster than initial Special Minimum PIAs.
As a result, a worker’s regular benefit is now almost always higher than the Special Minimum
PIA.10 After the initial year of benefit receipt, the same Social Security cost-of-living-adjustment
(COLA) applies to both the Special Minimum PIA and regular benefits.11
Figure 1. Annual Percentage Change in Average Prices and Wages, 1985-2018

Source: Wage index from Social Security Administration, Average Wage Index (AWI), https://www.ssa.gov/oact/
cola/awidevelop.html; price index from Bureau of Labor Supply, Consumer Price Index - Urban Wage Earners and
Clerical Workers
, retrieved on June 1, 2019 from http://www.bls.gov/cpi.
Notes: Cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs) are based on changes in the average CPI-W in the third quarter,
whereas this figure shows changes annual averages, but these values are very similar. Further, under current law,
COLAs cannot be negative.
Benefits for Family Members
Monthly benefit rates for dependents and survivors are calculated as a percentage of the worker’s
Special Minimum PIA, not to exceed a family maximum amount (described briefly below). The
computation of auxiliary benefits uses the same rates that are used for regular benefits.12
Potential Adjustments to the Special Minimum PIA
Various provisions may cause a worker’s monthly benefit payment to differ from the initial
Special Minimum PIA. Four provisions affect both the regular benefit and the special minimum
benefit:

effective in January 1973. The Social Security Amendments of 1977 (P.L. 95-216) implemented indexing benefit levels
in future years to price inflation. See 42 U.S.C. §415(a)(1)(C)(i).
10 See the Social Security Administration’s Office of Retirement Policy Program Explainer on the Special Minimum
Benefit, at https://www.ssa.gov/retirementpolicy/program/special-minimum.html.
11 See CRS Report 94-803, Social Security: Cost-of-Living Adjustments.
12 For details, see “Benefits for the Worker’s Family Members” in CRS Report R42035, Social Security Primer.
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1. the actuarial reduction, which reduces monthly benefits as a percentage of the
PIA for people who claim benefits before their FRA;13
2. the retirement earnings test (RET), which withholds benefits for beneficiaries
younger than the FRA who have earnings that exceed a specified dollar amount;14
3. the government pension offset (GPO), which reduces the monthly benefit amount
for people who have pensions from employment that is not covered by Social
Security, but who are entitled to Social Security spouse or survivor benefits based
on a spouse or deceased spouse’s work record in covered employment;15 and
4. the family maximum benefit, which limits the total benefit that can be received by
all members of a family, varying from 150% to 188% of the retired or deceased
worker’s PIA.16
One provision, the delayed retirement credit (DRC), affects regular benefits but does not affect
special minimum benefits.17 The DRC increases regular benefits for workers who start receiving
benefits after reaching the FRA.18
Workers entitled to a pension based on employment in certain federal, state, or local government
positions that are not covered by Social Security can have Social Security benefits reduced based
on the windfall elimination provision (WEP).19 The WEP decreases the conversion factors used in
the regular PIA computation. There is no analogous reduction to the Special Minimum PIA,
though workers subject to the WEP can receive the Special Minimum PIA.
Dually Entitled Beneficiaries
Some beneficiaries are entitled to Social Security benefits based both on their own work record
and on a spouse’s work. When a beneficiary’s retired-worker benefit is higher than the spousal or
survivor benefit, the beneficiary receives only the retired-worker benefit. However, when the
beneficiary’s retired-worker benefit is lower than the spousal or survivor benefit, the person is
referred to as “dually entitled” and receives a payment equal to the spousal or survivor benefit;

13 Although workers can claim Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62 (the early eligibility age, or EEA),
the full amount of a worker’s PIA is paid at the worker’s FRA. For more information on the retirement age, see CRS
Report R43542, How Social Security Benefits Are Computed: In Brief, and CRS Report R44670, The Social Security
Retirement Age
.
14 See CRS Report R41242, Social Security Retirement Earnings Test: How Earnings Affect Benefits.
15 Exceptions to the GPO, as listed in the Social Security Administration’s Program Operations Manual System, do not
include the Special Minimum PIA; Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System, Section GN
02608.100.C.1.b and C.2 at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/0202608100. Also, the Social Security Act
§ 202(k)(5) refers to adjustments to the “monthly insurance benefit.” For additional information on the GPO, see CRS
In Focus IF10203, Social Security: The Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and the Government Pension Offset
(GPO)
.
16 For more information on the maximum family benefit, see “Table 3. Social Security Benefits for the Worker’s
Family Members” in CRS Report R42035, Social Security Primer.
17 Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System (POMS), RS 00605.075, at
https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/0300605075.
18 The DRC is 8% per year for workers born in 1943 or later. The DRC for workers born earlier is available at Social
Security Administration, “Delayed Retirement Credit,” at http://www.ssa.gov/oact/quickcalc/early_late.html#drcTable.
See also Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System, Section RS 00605.075, at
https://secure.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0300605075.
19 See CRS In Focus IF10203, Social Security: The Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and the Government
Pension Offset (GPO)
. See also Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System, Section RS
00605.360.C.3.c, at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/0300605360.
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technically, the payment consists of the retired-worker benefit plus the difference between the
retired-worker benefit and the full spousal or survivor benefit.
Many workers—primarily women—who qualify for the Special Minimum PIA based on their
own work are dually entitled and receive a benefit amount that is equal to the higher spouse or
survivor benefit. Therefore, although they technically receive the Special Minimum benefit, the
provision has no effect on their overall monthly benefit amount. In December 2013, about 58,000
beneficiaries were entitled to the Special Minimum PIA, but 23,269 beneficiaries (or about 40%)
were dually entitled to a higher spouse or survivor benefit.20
The Special Minimum PIA Has Little Effect on
Current Beneficiaries
Because the regular PIA uses wage indexing and the Special Minimum PIA uses price indexing,
which tend to increase at a slower rate than wages, regular benefits to newly eligible beneficiaries
today are almost always greater than the special minimum benefit. Thus, the impact of the Special
Minimum PIA has diminished; the number of beneficiaries affected by the Special Minimum PIA
and the size of the additional benefit from the Special Minimum PIA have both declined. The
number of Social Security beneficiaries receiving the Special Minimum PIA decreased from
about 205,000 in 1991 to 32,092 in 2019; affected beneficiaries as a percentage of all Social
Security beneficiaries also decreased from 0.5% to less than 0.1% during the same time (see
Figure 2). Since1999, the provision has benefited only newly entitled beneficiaries whose regular
benefit is subject to the WEP (see Figure 3).21 As of December 2019, 32,092 beneficiaries were
entitled to a benefit based on the Special Minimum PIA: 88.9% were retired workers; 5.3% were
nondisabled widow(er)s; and the remaining 5.8% qualified as disabled workers, spouses, disabled
widow(er)s, widowed mothers and fathers, and children.22

20 Craig A. Feinstein, Diminishing Effect of the Special Minimum PIA, Social Security Administration, Actuarial Note
No. 154, November 2013, Table 3. This is most recent data available for this measure.
21 As explained above, the WEP is a special calculation (like the Special Minimum PIA) that can lead to lower benefits
but does not affect Special Minimum PIA calculations. The special minimum only helps individuals whose WEP PIA
(which tends to be lower than the regular PIA) is less than the special minimum benefit.
22 Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 2020 (in progress), Table 5.A8, at
https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/supplement/2020/5a.html#table5.a8.
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Figure 2. Number and Percentage of Social Security Beneficiaries Affected by the
Special Minimum PIA

Source: Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 1992-2020, Table 5.A1 and 5.A8.
Figure 3. Number of Families Receiving the Special Minimum PIA, as of June 2013

Source: Table 5 of Craig A. Feinstein, Diminishing Effect of the Special Minimum PIA, Social Security
Administration, Actuarial Note No. 154, November 2013, at http://www.ssa.gov/oact/NOTES/pdf_notes/
note154.pdf.
Notes: Based on eligibility year of the worker and basis for the Special Minimum PIA. There are a small number
of families not shown in this figure who receive the Special Minimum PIA based on other benefit calculations,
such as 1990 Old-start PIA calculations.
In 1991, the Special Minimum PIA was about $77 higher than the regular PIA for a new
beneficiary (first becoming eligible for benefits) who had earned the exact amount needed each
year for a YOC for 30 years, whereas in 2020, the Special Minimum PIA is about $12 lower than
the regular PIA for the same type of new beneficiary (see Figure 4). Therefore, the Special
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Minimum PIA was estimated to have no effect on retired workers turning 62 years old in 2019 or
later.23
Figure 4. The Regular PIA and the Special Minimum PIA for a Low Earner with 30
YOCs

Source: CRS.
Notes: The low earner is assumed to earn the exact amount needed each year for a YOC from age 31 through
age 60 to obtain 30 YOCs. The YOC threshold for the Special Minimum PIA was 25% of the old-law
contribution and benefit base (OLB) between 1951 and 1990, and 15% of the OLB on and after 1991. The
benefit level is measured when the worker turns age 62, and no early retirement reduction is applied.
History of the Social Security Minimum
Benefit Provision
The original Social Security minimum benefit provision was enacted in 1939 and eliminated in
1981, whereas the current-law Special Minimum PIA is effective from 1972 to present. The
Special Minimum PIA operated alongside the original minimum benefit until the end of 1981,
when the latter was phased out, with beneficiaries receiving the higher of the two benefits during
this period.
Original Structure of the Social Security Minimum Benefit
(1939 to 1981)
The Social Security minimum benefit provision was first enacted in 1939, in the Social Security
Amendments of 1939 (P.L. 76-379), when that act established that any benefit of less than $10
would be increased to $10. Unlike the current Special Minimum PIA, the law did not require any

23 See Craig A. Feinstein, Diminishing Effect of the Special Minimum PIA, Social Security Administration, Actuarial
Note No. 154, November 2013, at http://www.ssa.gov/oact/NOTES/pdf_notes/note154.pdf. For a worker who has
earned the exact amount each year for a YOC from age 31 to age 60 and becomes eligible for Social Security in 2019,
the Special Minimum PIA will be $1 lower than the regular PIA at age 62 (without actuarial reduction).
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number of years of work or any level of earnings. This minimum benefit applied to people who
had long careers with low annual covered earnings and to people who had shorter careers with
higher annual covered earnings.24
Successive legislation periodically increased benefit amounts, including the original $10 monthly
dollar amount for newly entitled beneficiaries, in increments on an ad hoc basis until 1975. This
changed with the enactment of cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs), which led to automatic
adjustments to benefits based on changes in prices (P.L. 92-336, 1972). More specifically, COLAs
were tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index. Annual adjustments applied to both initial
benefit amounts (including the minimum benefit amount) and monthly benefits.
The automatic increases to (initial) minimum benefits for newly entitled beneficiaries stopped
shortly after, when the Social Security Amendments of 1977 (P.L. 95-216) froze the minimum
benefit at the amount in effect in December 1978—$122 per month—for beneficiaries newly
entitled in January 1979 or later. Annual COLAs to monthly benefits continued to be provided to
beneficiaries following the first year of benefit receipt.
The House Ways and Means Committee report to accompany the bill to freeze the benefit (H.R.
9346; P.L. 95-216) contained this rationale:
Increasingly, the minimum benefit is being paid to people who did not, during their
working years, rely on their covered earnings as a primary source of support. Such people
include, for example, workers whose primary work was in non-covered employment
subject to a staff retirement system—such as Federal civilian employees. In December
1975, about 45% of civil service retirement annuitants were receiving Social Security
benefits, more than a quarter of whom were receiving the minimum.… Because of the
characteristics of people getting the minimum, it has been characterized as being a
‘windfall’ to people who have not worked regularly under the program.25
The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 (P.L. 97-35) eliminated the minimum benefit
structure for all current and future beneficiaries, effective January 1, 1982. The bill was enacted
into law on August 13, 1981, but public outcry led to reconsideration. Subsequently, in December
1981, the Highway Revenue Act of 1981 (P.L. 97-123) was enacted to restore the original
minimum benefit structure for people who became eligible for Social Security benefits before
January 1, 1982. That law eliminated the minimum benefit structure for all beneficiaries who
attained the age of 62, became disabled, or were eligible for survivor benefits based on the death
of a family member after December 1981.26
The Special Minimum PIA (1973 to the Present)
The current-law Special Minimum PIA was enacted by the Social Security Amendments of 1972
(P.L. 92-603), at the same time as the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.27 The

24 For example, people who had a sporadic attachment to the workforce or who worked primarily in jobs that were not
covered by Social Security but had some covered employment
25 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Ways and Means, Report to Accompany H.R. 9346, the Social Security
Financing Amendments of 1977
, 95th Cong., 1st sess., October 12, 1977, pp. 31-32.
26 An exception was made for certain members of religious orders who took a vow of poverty and were newly entitled
to benefits through December 1991, provided that the religious order had elected coverage before December 29, 1991.
The original Minimum Benefit was eliminated for members of religious orders effective January 1992. See Social
Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System, Section RS 00605.100.
27 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a needs-based public assistance program administered by the Social Security
Administration (SSA) that provides monthly cash benefits to the aged, blind, and disabled. The program is intended to
provide a minimum level of income to adults who have difficulty meeting their basic living expenses due to age or
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Special Minimum PIA was designed to increase benefit adequacy among full-time, full-career
minimum wage earners, and to help those workers reduce dependence on means-tested cash
assistance, such as SSI.28 The provision is also designed to avoid providing windfalls for persons
with little or sporadic attachment to the covered workforce.29 The provision took effect in January
1973, with the benefit base amount that was multiplied by years of coverage in excess of 10 set to
$8.50.30 The Special Minimum PIA operated alongside the original minimum benefit until the end
of 1981, when the latter was phased out. When both provisions were in effect, beneficiaries
received the higher of the benefits. Unlike the original minimum benefit, the Special Minimum
PIA did not help people who had paid Social Security payroll taxes for only a few years, nor were
Special Minimum PIA benefits automatically adjusted with a COLA.31
The Special Minimum PIA benefit base amount was increased from $8.50 to $9.00 in 1973 (P.L.
93-233), and remained at that level from 1974 to 1978. Under the Social Security Amendments of
1977 (P.L. 95-216), the initial benefits base was increased to $11.50 in 1979, and the Special
Minimum PIA was then indexed to prices.32 The 1977 amendments also indexed benefit levels
after eligibility to price inflation.
When the Special Minimum PIA was enacted in 1972, the earnings required to qualify for a year
of coverage (YOC) was set at 25% of the old-law contribution and benefit base (OLB). The law
enacted in 1990 (P.L. 101-508) changed the earnings required for a YOC to 15% of the OLB for
earnings in 1991 and later. The YOC earnings threshold was lowered so that a worker would be
able to qualify for a YOC if he or she was a full-time minimum wage earner.33 The thresholds for

disability and who have little or no Social Security or other income. For more information on SSI, see CRS In Focus
IF10482, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
28 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Finance, Report to Accompany H.R. 1, Social Security Amendments of 1972,
92nd Cong., 2nd Sess., S. Rept. 92-1230, September 26, 1972, p. 7, at https://www.ssa.gov/history/pdf/
Downey%20PDFs/Amendments%20to%20the%20Social%20Security%20Act%201969-
1972%20Vol.%203.pdf#page=17.
29 Ibid, p. 153.
30 For example, a worker with 11 years of coverage would get a Special Minimum PIA of $8.50 ($8.50 x 1 year of
coverage in excess of 10 = $8.50); and 20 years of coverage would result in a Special Minimum PIA of $85 ($8.50 x 10
years of coverage in excess of 10 = $85). The maximum minimum benefit payable at that time was nearly 93% of the
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) poverty guideline for a one-person household. The dollar amount
was set as a result of a compromise between the House and the Senate proposals. See U.S. Congress, House of
Representatives, Conference Report to Accompany H.R. 1, The Social Security Amendments of 1972, 92th Cong., 2nd
Sess., Report No. 92-1605, October 14, 1972, p. 37, at https://www.ssa.gov/history/pdf/Downey%20PDFs/
Amendments%20to%20the%20Social%20Security%20Act%201969-1972%20Vol.%206.pdf#page=18.
31 U.S. Congress, Senate Finance Committee, Report to Accompany H.R. 1, The Social Security Amendments of 1972,
92nd Cong., 2nd sess., September 26, 1972, pp. 153-155.
32 The first increase to the Special Minimum PIA due to indexing happened in June 1979. Rather than indexing the
$11.50 base and then multiplying by years of coverage in excess of 10, the table that shows the corresponding PIA for
each year of coverage is indexed and then rounded to the nearest10 cents. For example, in January 1979, 11 years of
coverage resulted in a PIA of $11.50 ($11.50 x 1 year of coverage in excess of 10 = $11.50). The COLA in 1979 was
9.9%, and the amounts were indexed in June 1979. After rounding, the Special Minimum PIA for 11 years of coverage
was $12.70 ($11.50 x 1.099 COLA = $12.64, rounded up to $12.70). The Special Minimum PIA for 12 years of
coverage was $25.30 ($23.00 x 1.099 COLA = $25.28, rounded up to $25.30). In June 1980, the COLA was 14.3%;
instead of multiplying years of coverage by $14.45 ($11.50 x 1.099 COLA in June 1979 x 1.143 COLA in June 1980),
and getting a Special Minimum PIA of $14.50 (after rounding) for 11 years of coverage, the Special Minimum PIA was
$14.60 ($12.70 for 11 YOC in June 1979 x 1.143 COLA in June 1980 = $14.51, rounded up to $14.60).
33 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Report to Accompany H.R. 5835, Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of
1990
, 101th Cong., 2st Sess., H. Rept. 101-964, October 27, 1990, p. 949, at https://www.ssa.gov/history/pdf/
Downey%20PDFs/Omnibus%20Budget%20Reconciliation%20Act%20of%201990%20Vol%203.pdf#page=203.
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determining a YOC under the Special Minimum PIA are indexed to growth in national average
wages, which historically have risen faster than prices.
Arguments For and Against a Minimum Benefit
Provision

Arguments for a Minimum Benefit Provision
With the decline in the number of beneficiaries receiving the Special Minimum PIA, many
policymakers and analysts have suggested revising the current minimum benefit or creating a new
one. A minimum benefit is offered as a way to reward long-term, low-wage work without
subjecting beneficiaries to means testing, which can be cumbersome to administer and which may
make beneficiaries feel stigmatized.
Some argue that a minimum benefit remains necessary because many elderly Social Security
beneficiaries are poor or near poor.34 One study using Social Security administrative data linked
with Census Bureau survey data shows that, in 2012, the poverty rate among Social Security
retired-worker beneficiaries was 7.1%, 13.1% for aged widow(er)s, 23.5% for child-in-care
widow(er)s, and 32.2% for child-in-care spouses.35 A study shows that the SSI program has some
shortcomings that prevent SSI from effectively protecting the income security of the oldest
Americans. SSI benefits are about three-fourths of the poverty line for a single person and slightly
over 80% of poverty for a couple.36 Some research suggests restructuring the Social Security
minimum benefit provision by equating the full special minimum benefit to the poverty level
could be more effective in alleviating poverty than certain reforms to the SSI program, although a
combination of both programs could be useful in the event that Social Security benefits are
greatly reduced in the future.37
Some view minimum benefits as a way to reward long-term, low-wage work with a Social
Security benefit that is at or above the poverty threshold.38 Restructuring the Social Security
minimum benefit to provide a benefit at or above the poverty threshold (e.g., 125% of the poverty
threshold) for long-term workers would more generously reward long-term participation in the
workforce.
Others view a restructuring of minimum benefits as even more helpful in the context of
legislation that reduces Social Security benefits or exposes them to market risk. Several proposals
in the past that would reduce regular Social Security benefits have included minimum benefit
guarantees.39

34 See CRS Report R45791, Poverty Among Americans Aged 65 and Older.
35 Benjamin Bridges and Robert V. Gesumaria, “Poverty Status of Social Security Beneficiaries, by Type of Benefit,”
Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 76 No. 4, 2016, at https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v76n4/v76n4p19.html.
36 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Introduction to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Program,” February
27, 2014, at https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/1-10-11socsec.pdf.
37 Paul S. Davies and Melissa M. Favreault, Interactions Between Social Security Reform and the Supplemental
Security Income Program for the Aged
, Center for Retirement Research, February 2004.
38 See, for example, Peter A. Diamond and Peter R. Orszag, Saving Social Security: A Balanced Approach
(Harrisonburg, VA: Brookings Institution, 2004), p. 102.
39 See, for example, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, The Moment of Truth: Report of the
National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
, December 2010, p. 51, at
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A minimum benefit could be designed to reduce poverty rates among older beneficiaries more
efficiently than existing Social Security spousal and survivor benefits.40 This is partly because a
redesigned minimum benefit could reach persons who do not qualify for Social Security spouse
or survivor benefits because they never married or because they divorced before reaching 10
years of marriage.41 Among women born in the 1960s, the proportion of white and Hispanic
women who reach old age qualified for spouse or widow benefits will be about 80%, versus 50%
of black women.42 Because of changing marriage and work patterns, the number of women
eligible for spousal and survivors benefits is declining, making this a more important
consideration.43
In addition, private pensions and private savings have become more insecure and unequal.
Employer pension support has been declining,44 and, according to the National Compensation
Survey (NSC) data, the share of private-sector workers who participated in defined benefit plans
has fallen from 32% in 1992-93 to 12% in 2019.45 Private saving is not a resource available to
many older beneficiaries, and debt has grown substantially among older Americans in the past
three decades.46 Social Security minimum benefits, which would provide a flat income payment
to protect against poverty, may improve protections against the new financial risks older adults
are facing.47
Arguments for Phasing Out the Social Security Minimum Benefit
One argument for allowing the Special Minimum PIA to phase out is that current minimum
benefits cannot be accurately targeted to the working poor. The Special Minimum PIA is based on

http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf; the
(Rivlin-Domenici) Debt Reduction Task Force, Bipartisan Policy Center, Restoring America’s Future, November 2010,
p. 80, at http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/files/
BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf; and more recently, the Commission
on Retirement Security and Personal Savings, Bipartisan Policy Center, Securing Our Financial Future, June 2016, p.
92, at http://cdn.bipartisanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/BPC-Retirement-Security-Report.pdf.
40 Melissa M. Favreault, Gordon B.T. Mermin, and C. Eugene Steuerle, Minimum Benefits in Social Security, The
Urban Institute, August 2006, p. 9. See also Pamela Herd, “Ensuring a Minimum: Social Security Reform and
Women,” The Gerontologist, vol. 45, no. 1 (2005), pp. 12-25.
41 Divorced spouses qualify for spouse or survivor benefits based on the ex-spouse’s work record if the marriage lasted
at least 10 years.
42 Madonna Harrington Mayer, Doug Wolf, and Christine Himes, “Declining Eligibility for Social Security Spouse and
Widow Benefits in the U.S.?” Research on Aging 28(2): 240-60, 2006.
43 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Trends in Marriage and Work Patterns May Increase Economic
Vulnerability for Some Retirees
, GAO-14-33, February 26, 2014, at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-33. See also
Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 2020 (in progress), Table 5.A14, at
https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/supplement/2020/5a.html#table5.a14.
44 Larry Katz and Alan Krueger, The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States, 1995-
2015
,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper no. 22667, 2016.
45 See Stephanie L. Costo, “Trends in Retirement Plan Coverage over the Last Decade,” Monthly Labor Review,
February 2006, at https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2006/02/art5full.pdf; and March 2019 National Compensation Survey
(NCS), Retirement Benefits: Access, Participation, and Take-up Rates, data on private-sector workers at
https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2019/ownership/private/table02a.pdf.
46 See CRS Report R45911, Household Debt Among Older Americans, 1989-2016.
47 Pamela Herd, Melissa Favreault, Madonna Harrington Meyer, and Timothy M. Smeeding, A Targeted Minimum
Benefit Plan: A New Proposal to Reduce Poverty Among Older Social Security Recipients
, The Russell Sage
Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, vol. 4, no. 1, 2018, Anti-Poverty Policy Initiatives for the United States, pp.
74-90.
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link to page 17 Social Security: Minimum Benefits

the number of years that earnings are at or above the specified threshold ($15,354 in 2020).
Because SSA does not collect information on earnings per hour or on the number of hours
worked, it is impossible to distinguish between people who had low annual earnings because they
worked few hours at higher wages and those who worked many hours at lower wages.48 People
with high annual earnings but low lifetime earnings may be seen as having chosen their low
lifetime earnings by working less than others.
Another argument is that using YOCs can disadvantage low earners whose income does not meet
the threshold for that year (perhaps as little as one dollar less than the YOC threshold). The
current Special Minimum PIA does not give partial credit for earnings below the YOC threshold,
and therefore, produces a “cliff effect” for beneficiaries with earnings at the margin of any given
YOC. In particular, one worker can have high enough annual earnings to receive the YOCs
needed to receive a special minimum benefit, whereas another may have earned the same or more
amount over a greater number of years, but not enough during each year to receive enough
YOCs, and would receive a lower regular benefit. For example, Worker A in Table 2 earned the
exact amount of YOC threshold every year for 30 years. This worker would receive a Special
Minimum PIA of $581.10, as the minimum benefit was greater than the regular PIA. On the other
hand, Worker B earned just $10 below the YOC threshold every year for 31 years, which was a
higher career-average earnings level than Worker A’s ($9,383.25 compared to $9,117.00), but
disqualified him from the special minimum benefit. Thus, Worker B would receive the regular
benefit of $558.20, which would be lower than the Social Security Special Minimum PIA
received by Worker A.
Table 2. Illustrative Examples: Workers Earning at and below the YOC Earnings
Threshold
Workers Eligible for Benefits in 2000a
Career-
Average
Special
Social
Years of
Annual
Annual
Regular
Minimum
Security
Worker
Working
Earnings
Earningsb
PIA
PIA
benefits
A
30 years (age
YOC
$9,117.00
$551.10
$581.10
$581.10
31 to 60)
Threshold
B
31 years (age
$10 less than
$9,383.25
$558.20
$0
$558.20
30 to 60)
YOC
Threshold
Source: CRS.
Notes: The Social Security benefit is the higher of the regular PIA and the Special Minimum PIA for each
worker.
a. The current-law Special Minimum PIA generally does not affect new retirees today. Therefore, this table is
based on workers eligible for Social Security benefits in 2000, the time that the Special Minimum PIA stil
affected newly eligible beneficiaries.

48 For example, one worker may earn the 2020 YOC threshold of $15,345 for 40 hours per week over 12 months with
lower hourly wages, another may earn that same amount for 20 hours of work per week over 12 months with moderate
hourly wages, and a third may have earned that amount over 3 months with relatively higher hourly wages. All three
workers would receive a YOC for 2020 and would have identical earnings information on their Social Security records,
which do not contain information on the number of hours worked and hourly wages.
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b. To compute the career-average annual earnings, the worker’s earnings are converted into current-dol ar
terms by indexing each year of earnings to historical wage growth, and the sum of the highest 35 years of
indexed earnings are divided by 35 to determine career-average annual earnings.
Others argue that the goal of providing a benefit protection (above the poverty level) to full-
career, full-time minimum wage workers might be better achieved by increasing the federal
minimum wage rate. In 2020, the regular benefit for a newly eligible 30-year full-time federal
minimum wage earner is about 10% below the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
poverty guideline. In 2019, the federal minimum wage was $7.25 per hour, which has been in law
since 2007 (P.L. 110-28).49 Congress has considered increasing the federal minimum wage
immediately.50 With an increase in the minimum wage rate, full-career full-time minimum wage
earners may receive a regular Social Security benefits greater than the poverty level.
Additionally, some argue that the special minimum benefit provision targeted to full-time, full-
career, low-wage earners would be unlikely to help poor beneficiaries with relatively short
careers. For those people with low incomes and assets, means-tested programs, such as SSI, are a
more appropriate way to supplement the incomes. Means testing can help target transfers to those
who are in greatest financial need. Some research suggests, however, that means testing can harm
incentives for work and saving because SSI’s asset limits are currently low: countable resources51
must not be worth more than $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a couple.52 There are other
considerations that could limit SSI’s impact. For example, Social Security is available to retired
workers earlier than aged SSI benefits; retired workers can claim Social Security benefits starting
at the age of 62 while SSI is available to aged beneficiaries starting at age 65 (though disabled
retired workers aged 62-64 can receive SSI). Furthermore, SSI is generally insufficient to move
recipients above the federal poverty level.53
Considering Minimum Benefit Proposals
There are two major considerations in proposals for a minimum benefit. First, who would receive
the minimum benefit, and second, how much would they receive?

49 See CRS Report R43089, The Federal Minimum Wage: In Brief, by David H. Bradley. 29 states and the District of
Columbia have enacted minimum wage rates above the federal rate, ranging from $7.50 to $14.00 per hour. For more
information, see CRS Report R43792, State Minimum Wages: An Overview, by David H. Bradley.
50 H.R. 582 was reported in the House on July 11, 2019, and passed on July 18, 2019, by a vote of 231 to 199. Among
other provisions, H.R. 582 would increase the minimum wage in seven steps until it reached $15.00 per hour in 2025.
See CRS In Focus IF11282, Minimum Wages and the Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582), by David H. Bradley and Julie
M. Whittaker.
51 For examples of what counts and what does not count towards the resource limit, see Social Security Administration,
Understanding Supplemental Security Income SSI Resources, 2018 edition, at https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-resources-
ussi.htm.
52 See “How Much Does SSI Affect People’s Work and Saving?” in Congressional Budget Office, Supplemental
Security Income: An Overview
, December 2012, pp.10-12, at http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/
attachments/43759-SupplementalSecurity.pdf.
53 Melissa Koenig and Kalman Rupp, “SSI Recipients in Households and Families with Multiple Recipients:
Prevalence and Poverty Outcomes,” Social Security Bulletin, vol. 65, no. 2 (2003/2004), at https://www.ssa.gov/policy/
docs/ssb/v65n2/v65n2p14.html, and Jeffrey Hemmeter and Michelle Stegman Bailey, Characteristics of
Noninstitutionalized DI and SSI Program Participants, 2013 Update
, Social Security Administration, Research and
Statistics Note 2015-02, September 2015, at https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/rsnotes/rsn2015-02.html.
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Who Receives the Minimum Benefit Under the Proposal?
Proposals differ in terms of who would receive the minimum benefit. Some would target the
minimum benefit toward people with a certain number of years of work as under current law,
while some others propose that every Social Security beneficiary receive a minimum benefit.
Proposals Based on Years of Work
To target the benefit toward people with many years of work, many proposals would link
minimum benefit levels to the number of years a person has worked in covered employment. The
current full minimum benefit is payable to workers with 30 years of covered earnings (YOCs),
and partial minimum benefits (linearly prorated) are available to beneficiaries with YOCs
between 11 and 29, with a YOC defined as 15% of the old law contribution and benefit base
(OLB; $15,345 in 2020). Since its enactment, the Special Minimum PIA was estimated to
produce higher payments than the regular PIA only for workers with at least 23 YOCs.54 The
design of the YOC requirement—such as the YOC earnings threshold and the number of YOCs
needed for benefits—could affect the types of beneficiaries who would receive the minimum
benefit. Many recent minimum benefit proposals would change the requirement for YOCs.55
Reducing the YOC Earnings Threshold
Under the current-law Special Minimum PIA, a worker needs to earn 15% of the OLB ($15,345
in 2020) to qualify for a YOC, which is slightly higher than the annual full-time federal minimum
wage amount ($15,080 in 2020 for individuals working 2,080 hours per year, equivalent to
working 40 hours per week and 52 weeks per year). Thus, an individual working full-time at the
minimum wage would not qualify for a YOC. Policy proposals for the Special Minimum PIA
generally suggest reducing the YOC threshold to a lower level, such as the annual federal
minimum wage amount for working 1,500 hours per year ($10,875 in 2020, equivalent to
working 30 hours per week and 50 weeks per year)56 or the amount required for four earnings
credits ($5,640 in 2020).57 Lowering the YOC earnings threshold would likely make the special
minimum benefit available to more workers, including those part-time and part-year workers, and
result in a larger benefit increase on average. A variation on this type of reform would be to count
partial years of coverage (i.e., if a person earned 50% of the coverage threshold, they would
accrue half a year of coverage).58 One study looked at combining a quarterly coverage threshold
with the lower dollar amount of the Special Minimum PIA coverage threshold (on an annualized

54 Senate Committee on Finance and House Committee on Ways and Means, Summary of Social Security Amendments
of 1972, November 17, 1972, Volume 6, at https://www.ssa.gov/history/pdf/Downey%20PDFs/
Amendments%20to%20the%20Social%20Security%20Act%201969-1972%20Vol.%206.pdf#page=346.
55 See the options described in Social Security Administration, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits,
Options 5.1-5.10, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5.
56 For example, the Social Security Reform Act of 2016 (H.R. 6489, 114th Congress). When the YOC threshold was
reduced from 25% to 15% of the OLB in 1991, it was approximately the level of annual earnings for a federal
minimum wage worker who worked 1,500 hours in a year (30 hours per week ×50 weeks). In 2020, the federal
minimum wage earner would receive $10,875 if he or she works 1,500 hours during the year, which was about 11% of
the OLB.
57 For example, the Social Security 2100 Act of 2019 (H.R. 860,116th Congress).
58 For example, H.R. 5392 introduced in the 116th Congress. The proposal would to allow beneficiaries accumulate
YOCs based on number of earnings credits, therefore the number of YOCs would equal to the total number of earnings
credits divided by four.
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basis) and found that this reform would reach more workers than allowing partial years of
coverage.59
Changing the Number of YOCs Required for Minimum Benefits
Under current law, the full minimum benefit is payable when the worker has 30 or more YOCs,
and no minimum benefit is payable when the number of YOCs is fewer than 11. Since the Special
Minimum PIA was originally targeted to full-time, full-career, low wage earners, policy makers
have suggested increasing the minimum number of YOCs required for the Special Minimum PIA,
the number of YOCs required for the full minimum benefit, or both. If the Special Minimum PIA
is reduced proportionally as the YOC decreases, proposals that extend the YOC range to a higher
number of YOCs would generally make the minimum benefit available to a smaller group of
beneficiaries.60 For example, one proposal would narrow the range of YOCs by raising the
number of YOCs required to be eligible for any minimum benefit from 11 to 20.61 Options with a
narrower YOC range provide fewer possible minimum benefit levels. Another proposal would
increase the minimum number of YOCs required for the Special Minimum PIA from 11 to 20,
while increasing the number of YOCs required for full minimum benefits from 30 to 40.62 This
proposal would reduce minimum benefit amounts for every possible YOC compared to current
law.
Additional Issues of Attachment to the Workforce and YOC Requirements
Special minimum benefit proposals are often structured to avoid conferring windfalls on people
without a strong attachment to covered employment. Such people may include recent immigrants
or people who worked most of their careers in noncovered state or local government employment.
In conjunction with a lower YOC threshold, the WEP or a similar policy could be applied to the
minimum benefit provision to prevent a windfall to people with pensions from noncovered
employment.
Conversely, limited attachment to the workforce could be due to extenuating circumstances, such
as needing to provide caregiving to family members or not meeting the YOC threshold because of
poor health. Some proposals would combine a YOC requirement with credits for a limited
number of years of caregiving,63 unemployment, or poor health in the definition of a year of
coverage
.64 Providing those credits would require documentation of qualifying activities, which
could increase Social Security’s administrative costs.

59 Christina Smith FitzPatrick, Catherine Hill, and Leslie Muller, Increasing Social Security Benefits for Women and
Men with Long Careers and Low Earnings
, National Women’s Law Center, 2003.
60 Glenn R. Springstead, Kevin Whitman, and Dave Shoffner, Proposed Revisions to the Special Minimum Benefit for
Low Lifetime Earners
, Social Security Administration, Policy Brief 2014-01, September 2014, at https://www.ssa.gov/
policy/docs/policybriefs/pb2014-01.html.
61 See the options described in Social Security Administration, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits,
Options 5.1, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5.
62 See the options described in Social Security Administration, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits,
Options 5.10, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5.
63 For example, the National Academy of Social Insurance’s proposal in Fixing Social Security: Adequate Benefits,
Adequate Financing
(October 2009), the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force plan (November 2010),
and the Social Security Enhancement and Protection Act of 2013 (H.R. 1374) all include child-in-care in the definition
of a year of coverage.
64 Melissa M. Favreault, A New Minimum Benefit for Low Lifetime Earners, The Urban Institute: Retirement Policy
Program, Washington, DC, March 2009, at http://www.nasi.org/sites/default/files/research/
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Another consideration regarding limited attachment to the workforce is how disabled workers
would be affected. Under Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program rules, eligible
disabled workers may receive benefits based on shorter work histories than retired workers;
minimum benefit proposals could also treat disabled beneficiaries differently.65
Proposals Based on Beneficiary Status
Some proposals argue that all Social Security beneficiaries deserve a minimum benefit.66 The
minimum requirement to become eligible for Social Security retired-worker benefits is 40 earning
credits, equivalent to 10 years of working while earning four credits each year ($5,640 in 2020).
Providing a flat level of minimum benefits to all eligible beneficiaries would be likely to award
short-term workers the same benefit as those with longer careers. Because certain worker
beneficiaries with low benefits might live in a family with relatively higher income, proposals
that offer flat benefits to all beneficiaries sometimes would be based on family status and income
from all sources. At the same time, collecting income information from sources other than
earnings and Social Security might create administrative burdens for SSA and could become a
source of improper payments.
What is the Minimum Benefit Amount Under the Proposal?
One possible goal of a minimum benefit would be to reduce poverty. The current-law Special
Minimum PIA was not linked to poverty, and many people who receive it still have family
income below the federal poverty threshold. The Department of Health and Human Services
(HHS) poverty guideline for a one-person household in 2020 is $12,760,67 which was higher than
the annual benefits of someone claiming Special Minimum PIA benefits in 2020 with the
maximum years of coverage ($10,636.8 a year, or $886.4 a month).68 Proposed full minimum
benefit levels are often expressed as a percentage (e.g. 125%) of the federal poverty guidelines or
as a percentage of a new poverty measure that is in line with the recommendations of the National
Academy of Sciences.69Another proposal would equate minimum benefits to a percentage of the

Melissa_Favreault_January_2009_Rockefeller.pdf. See also National Academy of Social Insurance, Fixing Social
Security: Adequate Benefits, Adequate Financing
, Washington, DC, October 2009, at http://www.nasi.org/sites/default/
files/research/Fixing_Social_Security.pdf, p. 11.
65 See the options described in Social Security Administration, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits,
Options 5.4-5.6, 5.9-5.10, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5.
66 See Pamela Herd, Melissa Favreault, Madonna Harrington Meyer, and Timothy M. Smeeding, A Targeted Minimum
Benefit Plan: A New Proposal to Reduce Poverty Among Older Social Security Recipients
, The Russell Sage
Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2018, vol. 4, no. 1; and Pamela Herd, “Ensuring a Minimum: Social
Security Reform and Women,” The Gerontologist, vol. 45, no. 1 (2005), pp. 12-25.
67 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Poverty Guideline in 2020, at HHS poverty guidelines at
https://aspe.hhs.gov/prior-hhs-poverty-guidelines-and-federal-register-references. Poverty thresholds are used for
statistical purposes, to calculate official poverty population statistics. Poverty thresholds are updated by the Census
Bureau. Poverty guidelines are a simplified version of the poverty thresholds and are administrative, defined by the
Department of Health and Human Services to determine who is eligible for certain programs. See the Office of the
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Frequently Asked Questions Related to the Poverty Guidelines and
Poverty, https://aspe.hhs.gov/frequently-asked-questions-related-poverty-guidelines-and-poverty.
68 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Automatic Increases in Special Minimum Benefits,
2019, https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/smt.cgi.
69 Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Thomas M. Shapiro, “Enhancing Social Security for Low-Income Workers:
Coordinating an Enhanced Minimum Benefit with Social Safety Net Provisions for Seniors” in Strengthening Social
Security for Vulnerable Groups
, ed. National Academy of Social Insurance (Washington, DC, 2009), pp. 27-30.
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National Average Wage Index (AWI).70 The advantage of this proposal is that the minimum
benefit would be based on both years of work and average earnings levels. However, in certain
cases, the proposed minimum benefit might be still lower than the poverty level.
Additionally, the special minimum benefit provision was also designed to help reduce
dependence on means-tested cash assistance, mainly SSI, for people who worked many years in
covered employment.71 If Social Security benefits do not exceed the SSI income threshold—the
threshold below which people would be eligible for SSI—then some SSI benefits may be
payable. Over time, the full Special Minimum PIA (for those with 30 YOCs) generally was able
to lift minimum benefit recipients above the SSI income threshold.72 At the same time, workers
eligible for a partial Special Minimum PIA were likely to receive a special minimum benefit
amount less than the SSI income threshold (see Table 1).73 Proposals with an increase in the full
Special Minimum PIA would also likely increase some partial special minimum benefits above
the SSI federal benefit rate.
Benefit Growth: Prices or Wages?
In addition to setting an initial benefit level when a minimum benefit is first implemented,
policymakers would have to decide how a minimum benefit would grow each year. As noted
above, the effect of the Special Minimum PIA has diminished to the point of being unnoticeable
because the initial Special Minimum PIA is linked to prices while initial regular Social Security
benefits are linked to wages, which generally grow faster than prices. If the goal of a minimum
benefit were to ensure a certain purchasing power, it could be indexed to prices. Under current
law, the maximum SSI monthly benefit grows with prices. If the goal of a minimum benefit were
to provide beneficiaries with an income that grew at about the same rate as workers’ income, it
could be linked to wage levels.74

70 Social Security Administration, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Options 5.10, at
http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5.
71 See U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Finance, Report to Accompany H.R. 1, Social Security Amendments of
1972
, 92nd Cong., 2nd Sess., S. Rept. 92-1230, September 26, 1972, p. 4, at https://www.ssa.gov/history/pdf/
Downey%20PDFs/Amendments%20to%20the%20Social%20Security%20Act%201969-
1972%20Vol.%203.pdf#page=17.
72 Since 1979, the full Special Minimum PIA was about 84% of the HHS poverty guideline for a one-person household,
compared with the SSI Federal benefit rate at roughly 74% of the poverty guideline. The special minimum PIA as a
percentage of the poverty guideline stayed relatively stable over time mainly because both the special minimum PIA
and the poverty levels are adjusted by price growth. CRS calculations based on the special minimum PIA at various
YOCs at https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/smt.cgi, SSI Federal benefit rates at https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/SSIamts.html,
and HHS poverty guidelines at https://aspe.hhs.gov/prior-hhs-poverty-guidelines-and-federal-register-references.
73 A study from the Social Security Administration (SSA) indicates that about 6% of special minimum beneficiaries
also received SSI in 2001, compared with 5% of all Social Security beneficiaries. But due to data limitations, it is not
clear whether the remaining 94% of special minimum beneficiaries in the same year did not rely on SSI because the
special minimum PIA precluded SSI eligibility, or for other reasons. To determine who would qualify for SSI in the
absence of the special minimum benefit requires information about countable resources or income from sources other
than Social Security. SSA’s special minimum beneficiary records do not include information on total income or
resources; and the current universe of special minimum beneficiaries is too small to be represented in any database. See
Kelly A. Olsen and Don Hoffmeyer, “Social Security’s Special Minimum Benefit,” Social Security Bulletin,
2001/2002, Vol. 64 No. 2, at https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v64n2/v64n2p1.pdf.
74 See, for example, The (Rivlin-Domenici) Debt Reduction Task Force, Bipartisan Policy Center, Restoring America’s
Future,
November 2010, p. 80, at http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/files/
BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf.
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Partial Benefits: Linear or Nonlinear Proration?
Another factor policymakers would have to determine is how a partial minimum benefit would be
reduced as years of coverage (YOCs) decrease. Under current law, the Special Minimum PIA
declines linearly as the number of YOCs decreases, at a rate of roughly $44 per YOC in 2020 (see
Table 1). Proposals for a nonlinear proration would generally provide a higher special minimum
benefit amount than a linear proration for each YOC with partial benefits, so it would likely result
in more beneficiaries, particularly workers with shorter careers, qualifying for a special minimum
benefit.
Interactions Between Social Security Minimum Benefits and Other
Government Programs

If the Social Security minimum benefit is redesigned to be more generous or reach more people,
it would be necessary to address interactions between Social Security benefits and eligibility for
other programs targeted at low-income individuals. The interaction with SSI is of major concern,
though there would also be interactions with Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program (SNAP), and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to consider.
SSI is available to people with low incomes and limited resources. If a Social Security beneficiary
also receives SSI, there is often no advantage to an increase in Social Security benefits because
SSI benefits will be reduced by an equal amount. Specifically, a person’s “countable” income is
subtracted from the total of the SSI federal benefit rate ($783 per month in 2020 for an individual
living independently) plus any federally administered state supplement. Countable income equals
countable earned income plus all unearned income, including Social Security benefits, in excess
of $20.
If a Social Security benefit is increased above the SSI federal benefit rate, affected beneficiaries’
total income will increase, but they may be at risk of losing Medicaid eligibility via loss of SSI
eligibility. If countable income exceeds the base SSI benefit, then SSI eligibility is suspended.
After 12 consecutive months of suspension (24 months for children of overseas military
personnel), the person is formally terminated from the SSI program.75 If a person loses SSI
eligibility, he or she may, depending on the state, also lose Medicaid eligibility. Section 1619(b)
of the Social Security Act protects Medicaid eligibility for people who lose their SSI eligibility
due to earned income only and meet other criteria, but there is only limited protection (e.g., the
Pickle Amendment) for those who lose eligibility based on unearned income, such as Social
Security benefits.76Some analysts have proposed that people who become ineligible for SSI due
to an increased special minimum benefit remain eligible for Medicaid. Another possible remedy
would be to increase the dollar amount of the Social Security benefit that is disregarded in
determining SSI eligibility.77

75 SSI eligibility is also based on a resource test. In general, an SSI recipient’s assets are limited to no more than
$2,000, and couples’ assets are limited to no more than $3,000 (a home, car, and household items are not counted).
SSI’s low resource test thresholds (which are not indexed to inflation) may discourage workers from saving.
76 See the Program Operations Manual System SI 01715.015, available at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.NSF/
LNX/0501715015.
77 Robert Greenstein and Eileen Sweeney, Proposed Improvements in Social Security’s Minimum Benefit and Widow’s
Benefit Could Harm Some of the Nation’s Poorest People
, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Washington, DC,
June 27, 2005. See also Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede and Thomas M. Shapiro, “Enhancing Social Security for
Low-Income Workers: Coordinating an Enhanced Minimum Benefit with Social Safety Net Provisions for Seniors” in
Strengthening Social Security for Vulnerable Groups, ed. National Academy of Social Insurance (Washington, DC,
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Minimum Benefit Options and Estimated Effects
Although there have been numerous proposals for minimum benefits, most fall into three
categories:
1. a benefit based on the number of years of work, similar to the current Special
Minimum PIA,
2. an enhancement of benefits via a percentage increase in the regular benefit, or
3. an increase to benefits by a fixed-dollar amount.
SSA’s Office of the Chief Actuary, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and SSA’s Office of
Research Evaluation and Statistics have all published detailed analyses of the effects of various
minimum benefit options.78
Options Based on Number of Years of Work
One approach would be to reconfigure the Special Minimum PIA. Like current law, the special
minimum benefit would be based on the computed number of years of work, which would be
defined as having taxable earnings above a threshold. A beneficiary would receive the minimum
benefit if it was higher than the regular benefit.
Policy options generally would provide beneficiaries who worked for 30 years with a benefit
equivalent to 125% of the poverty line, phase down proportionally for workers with earnings
between 11 and 29 years, and with initial benefits indexed to wage growth. A year of work would
be defined as covered earnings of four quarters of coverage.79 These options generally would
increase benefits for some beneficiaries, including certain poor beneficiaries (those with family
income below the poverty threshold).
SSA’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics (ORES) estimates that, in 2050, this option
would increase benefits for 11.8% of newly eligible beneficiaries (in 2020 and later) and 28.7%
of poor beneficiaries. Of those affected, the median percent increase in benefits would be about
12%.80 CBO analyzed a similar proposal and found that it would increase benefits by about 10%
for low earners born in the 1960s, by 27% for low earners born in the 1980s, and 23% for low
earners born in the 2000s. According to the CBO estimate, it would increase retired worker
benefits for about 30% of new beneficiaries and 45% of disabled benefit recipients in 2040.81

2009); and Kalman Rupp, Alexander Strand, and Paul S. Davies, “Poverty Among Elderly Women: Assessing SSI
Options to Strengthen Social Security Reform,” Journal of Gerontology: SOCIAL SCIENCES, 2003, Vol. 58B, No. 6,
S359–S368.
78 Social Security Administration, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Options 5.1-5.10, at
http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5; Congressional Budget Office, Social Security
Policy Options
, Dec. 2015, p.69, at https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/51011-
SSOptions.pdf; and Social Security Administration, Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics (formerly the Office
of Retirement Policy), Policy Option Projections, “Reconfigure the minimum benefit,” at http://www.ssa.gov/
retirementpolicy/projections/benefit-formula.html.
79 Social Security Administration, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Options 5.1-5.10, at
http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5; and also Virginia P. Reno and Joni Lavery,
Fixing Social Security: Adequate Benefits, Adequate Financing
, National Academy of Social Insurance, October 2009,
pp. 10-11, at https://www.nasi.org/sites/default/files/research/Fixing_Social_Security.pdf..
80 Estimates received by CRS from SSA’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics (ORES), using the Modeling In
the Near Term (MINT) microsimulation (version 8.19) generated from December 2019 to April 2020.
81 Congressional Budget Office, Social Security Policy Options, December 2015, Option 33, p. 69, at
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A variation of the above option would count up to eight years of care for children under the age of
five as years of coverage (YOCs).82 If the child-care provision is combined with reducing the
YOC earnings threshold from current law to four quarters of coverage, about 17.3% of
beneficiaries and half of poor beneficiaries in 2050 would receive a higher benefit.83
In terms of the budgetary effect, SSA’s Office of the Chief Actuary estimated that enactment of
this option would cause an increase in the long-range (75 years) OASDI trust funds actuarial
deficit of 0.16% of taxable payroll without an adjustment for childcare years, and 0.24% with a
childcare provision. The long-range shortfall of OASDI trust funds would increase by 5% and 8%
respectively.84
Several similar options were proposed in the last decade. In 2010, the Commission on Fiscal
Responsibility and Reform suggested keeping everything else the same as the above option, with
a starting time of the new policy in 2027, before which time the benefit level would have been
indexed to prices and then to wage levels after that year. This proposal would cause an increase in
cost of 0.12% of taxable payroll in the 75-year projection.85 In 2011, Representative Jason
Chaffetz proposed another variation to set the minimum PIA for workers with 30 years of
coverage equal to 100% of the poverty level. This option with a limit of five childcare years cost
an additional 0.10% of taxable payroll in the long-range estimate.86 In 2013, the Social Security
Enhancement and Protection Act (H.R. 1374, 113th Congress) also proposed a minimum PIA for
workers with 30 years of coverage equal to 100% of the poverty level, setting a reduction of 3 1/3
percentage points for each year less than 30 years of work until 11 years of coverage, allowing a
limit of five childcare years, and indexing benefits as under current law. The proposal, starting in
2020, would cause an increase in the actuarial deficit of 0.03% of taxable payroll in the long
run.87 The provision proposed by the S.O.S. Act of 2016 (H.R. 5747, 114th Congress) increased
the number of years of coverage with full benefits to 40, setting the minimum PIA at 125% of the
poverty level, which will linearly decrease to 100% of the poverty level with 20 years of coverage
and then to 0% with 10 years or less. The budgetary effect of this proposal was an increase in the
actuarial deficit of 0.16% of taxable payroll.88 In addition, the Rivlin-Domenici task force (2010)

https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/51011-SSOptions.pdf.
82 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
5.3, 5.5-5.7 and 5.11, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5.
83 Estimates received by CRS from SSA’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics (ORES), using the Modelling
In the Near Term (MINT) microsimulation (version 8.19) generated from December 2019 to April 2020.
84 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
5.2 and 5.3, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on
assumptions in 2020 trustees report. The 2020 intermediate assumptions reflect the trustees understanding of Social
Security at the start of 2020; thus, they do not include potential effects of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
85 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, The Moment of Truth: Report of the National
Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
, December 2010, p. 51, at http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/
fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf, and Social Security Administration, Office
of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option 5.4, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/
solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on intermediate assumptions in 2020 trustees report.
86 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
5.6, 2018, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on intermediate
assumptions in 2020 trustees report.
87 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
5.7, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on intermediate
assumptions in 2020 trustees report.
88 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
5.9, 2018, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on intermediate
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proposed defining a year of coverage as a year in which a worker either earned 20% of the old-
law maximum or had a child in care, setting the minimum PIA for 30 years of coverage equal to
133% of the poverty level, indexing benefits to wages, and limiting benefits to workers with more
than 19 years of coverage. This proposal would cost an additional 0.04% of taxable payroll
compared with current law.89
A variation on this approach would be a minimum benefit that depended both on the number of
years of work and a worker’s average earnings, as measured by the average indexed monthly
earnings (AIME). For example, an option proposed by Representative Paul Ryan in 2010 as part
of H.R. 4529 (111th Congress) would have set a minimum benefit equal to 120% of the federal
poverty level for a worker whose AIME was below that of a lifelong, full-time minimum-wage
worker and who had 30 or more years of earnings.90 As with the Special Minimum PIA, the
minimum benefit would decline for workers with fewer years of earnings; those with fewer than
20 years would be ineligible. But in addition, the benefit would decline as average earnings
increased, and a worker whose AIME exceeded twice that of a lifelong, full-time minimum-wage
worker would also be ineligible for the minimum benefit. The budgetary effect of the provision
would be relatively small. The actuarial deficit was estimated to increase by no more than 0.01%
of taxable payroll in any year, according to SSA.91 A similar proposal analyzed by CBO estimates
that benefits for low earners would increase by about 6%.92
A relatively different proposal was included in the Social Security Reform Act of 2016 (H.R.
6489, 114th Congress), which reconfigured the Special Minimum benefit, phased in for newly
eligible workers from 2027 through 2036, with a year of coverage equal to the federal minimum
wage of a full-time worker. Workers with 35 years of coverage can get the minimum PIA equal to
35% of the Average Wage Index (AWI), and the benefit would decrease nonlinearly to zero with
10 or fewer years of coverage.93 SSA’s ORES estimates that if this provision was applied to
newly eligible beneficiaries in 2020 and later, about 15.4% of beneficiaries and 23.9% of poor
beneficiaries would receive a benefit increase in 2020.94 SSA estimated that this option would
cause an increase in the actuarial deficit of 0.29% of taxable payroll in the 75-year projection.95

assumptions in 2020 trustees report.
89 The Debt Reduction Task Force, Bipartisan Policy Center, Restoring America’s Future, November 2010, p. 80, at
http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/files/
BPC%20FINAL%20REPORT%20FOR%20PRINTER%2002%2028%2011.pdf, and Social Security Administration,
Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option 5.5, at http://www.ssa.gov/
OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on intermediate assumptions in 2020 trustees
report.
90 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
5.1, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on intermediate
assumptions in 2020 trustees report.
91 The effect on benefits would grow as the policy was phased in. Because the policy would grow the minimum benefit
with prices, the minimum benefit would grow more slowly than the regular benefit, so its effects would diminish in
importance over time as the Special Minimum PIA did.
92 Congressional Budget Office, Social Security Policy Options, July 2010, Option 24, p. 29, at http://www.cbo.gov/
publication/21547.
93 The Special Minimum PIA is assumed to be 35% of AWI at 35 or more YOCs, and is assumed to reduce by ⅔% of
AWI for each decrease in YOCs between 20 to 34 (thus 31 2/3 % of AWI at 30 YOCs), 1% of AWI for YOCs between
15 and 19, and 3% of AWI for YOCs between 11 and 14.
94 Estimates received by CRS from SSA’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics (ORES), using the Modelling
In the Near Term (MINT) microsimulation (version 8.19) generated from December 2019 to March 2020.
95 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
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Options to Enhance the Regular Social Security Benefit
Under the Special Minimum PIA and the options described in the previous section, people receive
either the regular benefit or the minimum benefit, whichever is higher. An alternative approach
would be to begin with the regular benefit for everyone, but to increase it by a certain percentage
for a targeted population.
CBO analyzed an option that would increase the regular benefit for low-wage workers by up to
40%. Workers with at least 35 years of work and whose AIME was less than that of a 30-year,
full-time minimum-wage worker would receive a 40% increase. Benefits would be increased by a
smaller percentage for workers with at least 20 years of work and below-average lifetime
earnings.96 That option would increase total benefits by about 7%. Median benefits would
increase for low earners by about 24%. The option would increase benefits for more than half of
workers because it would help everyone whose lifetime earnings were below that of someone
who worked for 35 years at the average wage in the economy.
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings has
proposed a basic minimum benefit (BMB) that supplements Social Security benefits, but is phased
out based on the benefit amount, as opposed to years of work (see Figure 5). The BMB would be
automatic, but to ensure that the BMB is not going to households with large amounts of non-
Social Security income, filers with higher adjusted gross incomes ($30,000 for single filers and
$45,000 for joint filers) would repay their BMB through the income-tax system. The actuarial
deficit due to this proposal would increase by 0.20% of taxable payroll in the 75-year projection,
and the projected long-range shortfall of OASDI trust funds would increase by 7%.97

5.10, 2020, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on
intermediate assumptions in 2020 trustees report.
96 Congressional Budget Office, Social Security Policy Options, July 2010, Option 25, pp. 29-30, at
http://www.cbo.gov/publication/21547; The concept was originally described in President’s Commission to Strengthen
Social Security, Strengthening Social Security and Creating Personal Wealth for All Americans, December 21, 2001, at
http://www.ssa.gov/history/reports/pcsss/reports.html.
97 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits, Option
5.8, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B5. Estimates are based on intermediate
assumptions in 2020 trustees report.
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Figure 5. Basic Minimum Benefit Amounts

Source: Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings, fig. 29 from
Securing Our Financial Future, June 9, 2016, available at http://cdn.bipartisanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/
BPC-Retirement-Security-Report.pdf.
A Fixed-Dollar Benefit
A simple but less targeted approach would be to set a minimum dollar Social Security benefit.
The benefit could be paid only to people who qualify for benefits under current law, or it could be
expanded to all elderly and disabled people.98 Such a policy would be similar to SSI, but it would
not necessarily be limited to people with low income and assets. If the benefit were set at or
above the poverty threshold, elderly poverty would be greatly reduced. However, a universal
benefit is not well-targeted: it would increase benefits for some people who already had relatively
high non-Social Security income. For example, an SSA analysis based on 1996 data found that
about one-sixth of Social Security beneficiaries had benefits lower than the maximum SSI benefit
level, which was $470 a month for a single person in 1996 and is currently $783 a month (that
share is almost certainly lower now because average Social Security benefits have increased
faster than SSI benefits).99 However, about 80% of retired workers whose Social Security benefit
was below the maximum SSI benefit level were not poor. In 1996, setting a minimum Social
Security benefit equal to the SSI benefit would have increased total Social Security outlays by
about 2%.

98 For example, a “Resident Minimum” proposal would provide a minimum benefit to all elderly individuals but also
would eliminate spousal benefits; see Pamela Herd, “Ensuring a Minimum: Social Security Reform and Women,” The
Gerontologist
, vol. 45, no. 1 (2005), pp. 12-25.
99 Kalman Rupp, Alexander Strand, Paul Davies, and Jim Sears, “Benefit Adequacy Among Elderly Social Security
Retired-Worker Beneficiaries and the SSI Federal Benefit Rate,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 67 No. 3, 2007, at
http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v67n3/v67n3p29.html.
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A variation of the above option is to award the minimum dollar benefit based on family income
levels.100 The family income would include Social Security benefits from both individuals and
spouses (if any), and other income sources as well, such as earnings, pensions, and assets income.
Implementation of this option would require SSA to have access to income tax return data from
the Internal Revenue Service.
Alternative Strategies for Addressing Poverty
Among Long-Term Low-Wage Workers
Instead of implementing a minimum benefit, low-wage workers could be assisted through other
approaches, including changes to the standard benefit formula, other changes to the Social
Security benefit rules, or a separate program.
The regular Social Security benefit could be made more progressive.101 Such a change could be
designed to redistribute benefits to people with lower lifetime earnings in a way similar to the
way that a standard, wage-indexed minimum benefit would.102
Some proposals would address poverty among long-term, low-wage workers and their dependents
by targeting benefit increases to single or divorced women or to people who live into advanced
old age. For example, the length-of-marriage requirement for divorced women could be lowered
from 10 years to 5 or 7 years. Caregiver credits or “drop-out” years could be entered into the
Social Security benefit formula for workers who take career breaks to care for a child or other
relative. Another proposal would increase the Social Security survivor’s benefit to 75% of the
couple’s combined benefit; some versions of this proposal would offset costs by lowering the
spousal benefit received while both members of the couple are alive.103
A goal of increasing federal support for poor aged and disabled people could be implemented
outside of Social Security. For example, increases in federal SSI spending would help many of
the same beneficiaries affected by a minimum Social Security benefit, but people with little or no
work history would also benefit.104 A new program could also be established. For example, the
Senior Income Guarantee (SIG) would provide benefits at 75% of the poverty threshold for
people at or above the full retirement age who have 10 years in covered work and 40 years of
residence in the United States and lesser benefits for those with shorter work histories or fewer
years of residence.105 Benefit and eligibility standards would be less strict than for SSI; for
example, asset tests would be more generous.

100 See Pamela Herd, Melissa Favreault, Madonna Harrington Meyer, and Timothy M. Smeeding, A Targeted Minimum
Benefit Plan: A New Proposal to Reduce Poverty Among Older Social Security Recipients
, The Russell Sage
Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2018, vol. 4, no. 1.
101 Social Security Administration, Office of the Chief Actuary, Provisions Affecting Level of Monthly Benefits,
Option 3.15, at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/solvency/provisions/benefitlevel.html#B3.
102 Melissa M. Favreault, Gordon B.T. Mermin, and C. Eugene Steuerle, Minimum Benefits in Social Security, The
Urban Institute, Washington, DC, August 2006, p. 17.
103 For more information, see CRS Report R41479, Social Security: Revisiting Benefits for Spouses and Survivors; CRS
Report R46182, Social Security and Vulnerable Groups—Policy Options to Aid Widows, by Paul S. Davies; and U.S.
Government Accountability Office, Social Security: Options to Protect Benefits for Vulnerable Groups When
Addressing Program Solvency
, GAO-10-101R, December 7, 2009.
104 An example of the legislation effort could be found in Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act of 2017 (H.R.
3307).
105 Timothy M. Smeeding and R. Kent Weaver, The Senior Income Guarantee (SIG): A New Proposal to Reduce
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Poverty Among the Elderly, Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, CRR WP 2001-12, Boston, MA,
December 2002, at http://crr.bc.edu/working-papers/the-senior-income-guarantee-sig-a-new-proposal-to-reduce-
poverty-among-the-elderly/.
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Author Information

Zhe Li

Analyst in Social Policy


Acknowledgments
The previous author of the report was former CRS analyst Wayne Liou. Earlier versions were written by
former CRS analysts Alison Shelton and Noah Meyerson.

Disclaimer
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan
shared staff to congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and
under the direction of Congress. Information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other
than public understanding of information that has been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in
connection with CRS’s institutional role. CRS Reports, as a work of the United States Government, are not
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Congressional Research Service
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