Unless Congress acts, the trust funds that support Social Security will run out of money in 2033, according to the trustees who oversee the retirement and disability program. At that point, Social Security would collect only enough tax revenue each year to pay about 75 percent of benefits. That benefit cut wouldn't sit well with the millions of older Americans who rely on Social Security for most of their income.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama hasn't laid out a detailed plan for addressing Social Security. He's called for bipartisan talks on strengthening the program but he didn't embrace the plan produced by a bipartisan deficit reduction panel he created in 2010.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney proposes a gradual increase in the retirement age to account for growing life expectancy. For future generations, Romney would slow the growth of benefits "for those with higher incomes."
Why it matters:
For millions of retired and disabled workers, Social Security is pretty much all they have to live on, even though monthly benefits are barely enough to keep them out of poverty. Monthly payments average $1,237 for retired workers and $1,111 for disabled workers. Most older Americans rely on Social Security for a majority of their income; many rely on it for 90 percent or more, according to the Social Security Administration.
Social Security is already the largest federal program and it's getting bigger as millions of baby boomers reach retirement. More than 56 million retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security benefits. That number that will grow to 91 million by 2035, according to congressional estimates.
Social Security could handle the growing number of beneficiaries if there were more workers paying payroll taxes. But most baby boomers didn't have as many children as their parents did, leaving relatively fewer workers to pay into the system.
In 1960, there were 4.9 workers for each person getting benefits. Today, there are about 2.8 workers for each beneficiary, and that ratio will drop to 1.9 workers by 2035.