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Social Security Collectors Up 19%

WASHINGTON - The number of retired workers who began collecting Social Security benefits jumped by a record 19% in the 2009 fiscal year that ended Wednesday as aging Baby Boomers and the unemployed chose to retire early.

More than 2.6 million retired workers entered the Social Security system, up from 2.2 million in fiscal 2008. That's a much bigger increase than during past recessions.

"There are just not enough jobs for older people," says Richard Johnson, senior fellow at the non-partisan Urban Institute. "They have no choice but to go on Social Security."

The number of disabled workers receiving first-time benefits also soared to nearly 1 million, an increase of 100,000 over the previous year, according to Social Security Administration records.

Those two factors are putting new pressure on Social Security's finances. The program paid out $6 billion more in August than it took in. It's projected to run in the red for the next two years before returning to a surplus in 2012.

"We have the combination of more people filing for early retirement and disability benefits at the same time that we have a reduction in the size of the workforce," said Stephen Goss, Social Security's chief actuary.

The figures are affected both by the lengthy recession, which has sent unemployment to 9.7%, and by Baby Boomers who began reaching the early retirement age of 62 in 2008.

More people are in the pipeline. New applications for Social Security increased nearly 23% in fiscal 2009, the agency said. It had projected a 15% increase based on the first wave of Baby Boomers born in 1946 and 1947. The rest of the increase is because of rising unemployment, Goss said.

Those who choose early retirement at 62 get reduced monthly benefits. If they stay retired and live longer than expected, they would receive less than if they had waited to claim benefits. Widows who rely on their husbands' benefits also would lose out.

"The goal should be to have as high a monthly income from this as possible," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "It's unfortunate that we're going to have this many people who have claimed these . . . reduced benefits."

The decision on when to take Social Security benefits is difficult, but many experts advise waiting as long as possible. The benefit is calculated based on salary and years in the workforce; the longer you work, the higher the benefit. But many Baby Boomers are choosing to take benefits at 62.

Disability claims rose 17% this year, to more than 3 million, according to Social Security. It's projected to jump to 3.3 million in 2010.

"The economy plays a big part," says Dan Allsup, spokesman for Allsup Inc., which handles disability claims. "Every time there is a recession, it spikes."

At the same time, older people are trying to stay in the workforce longer or seeking to return because their savings have taken a hit. Nearly two-thirds of people ages 55-64 are working, more than at the peak of the economic boom. But in the past few months, the percentage has declined slightly.

"We have seen a rise in job discouragement," said Steve Hipple, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist. "We know how poor the job market is."

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