Seniors – those aged 65 and older – are an economically diverse group. While seniors receive income from a variety of sources, the primary sources are Social Security, employer-sponsored pensions, earnings, and income from assets. In 2008, the average income of seniors was $29,248, up from $28,449 in 2007. The median income level (the midpoint, half above and half below) of the senior population was $18,208, up from $17,382 in 2007.


In 2008, 3.7 million Americans aged 65 and older had family incomes below the federal poverty threshold. This translates to a poverty rate of 9.7 percent for all persons aged 65 and older. The oldest Americans had the highest poverty rates. In 2008, 11.5 percent of individuals aged 80 and older were poor compared with 8.5 percent of individuals between the ages of 65 and 69. In addition, 30 percent of all Americans aged 80 and older had family incomes of less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold.

Social Security

Retirement benefits from Social Security are the most common source of income among the aged. In 2008, Social Security paid benefits to 86% of Americans aged 65 and older and to 89 percent of households in which the householder or householder’s spouse was 65 or older.

  • In 2008, 68.9 percent of senior Social Security beneficiaries received more than half of their income from Social Security.
  • For 40.6 percent of senior beneficiaries, Social Security contributed more than 90 percent of their income in 2008, and for 26 percent of all senior beneficiaries, it was their only source of income.
  • Average monthly Social Security benefits at the end of 2008 were $1,153 for a retired worker and $1,877 for an elderly couple.

Pensions and Annuities 1

Since the late 1970s, the proportion of American workers who participate in employer-sponsored retirement plans has remained fairly stable at about half of the workforce. In 2008, 12.9 million seniors – 34.2 percent of that age group – received income from a private or public pension.

  • 4.4 million seniors (roughly one third) had income from a public-sector pension – that is, from previous employment in federal, state, or local government.
  • 8.8 million seniors received income from private-sector pension plans.
  • For the 4.4 million seniors who reported income from a government pension in 2008, the median annual amount was $18,000. For the 8.8 million seniors who reported income from a private-sector pension in 2008, the median annual amount was $7,584.


Many Americans prepare for retirement by saving and investing some of their income while they are working. Of the 36 million Americans aged 65 or older in 2007, 18.9 million (51 percent) received income from assets, such as interest, dividends, rent, and royalties.

  • In 2008, average income from assets for seniors was $6,697.
  • Most received small amounts; half of seniors who had income from assets in 2008 received less than $1,054 per year.


Earnings from work continue to be an important source of income for older

Americans, especially those under age 70. Although there was a trend toward earlier retirement from about 1960 to 1985, the trend for the past 20 years has been that more Americans have continued to work at older ages.

  • Among seniors, 47 percent of men and 32 percent of women were employed in 2008.
  • While the share of older Americans who work declines rapidly after age 65, 14 percent of men and 8 percent of women who were aged 70 or older in 2007 were still working.
  • For those seniors who continued working, median earnings were $20,000 in 2008.


Source: Congressional Research Service (CRS) tabulations of data from the March 2008 Current Population Survey (CPS).

1As reported here, “pension income” includes payments from a company or union pension, payments from a federal, state, or local government pension, military retirement pay, regular payments from an annuity or paid-up insurance policy, and regular payments from an IRA, Keogh account, or a §401(k)-type account.


Government Policy and Relations, March 2010