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What Is the Difference between a Pension and Social Security?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The difference between a pension and Social Security is quite significant, and while certain Social Security programs may resemble pensions, no part of it is administered like a pension plan. Pensions are retirement benefits that are provided to people who have paid into a plan or who have been granted pension benefits by an employer. Social Security is a social insurance program in the United States that provides a wide number of services, one of which is taxpayer-funded benefits to the elderly. When people talk about “Social Security,” they are usually thinking of these benefits, and some people talk about a Social Security pension, further confusing the issue.

Pensions may be funded in a variety of ways. Employees may pay into a plan as they work for an employer, or they may bank funds privately in a retirement account that will work like a pension. Pensions can also be funded by employers, unions, or the government. Depending on how the pension is organized, funds may be banked against the beneficiary's eventual retirement, or they may be paid out as needed.

The US Social Security Administration provides a variety of benefits to Americans with disabilities, retired Americans, and surviving spouses and children of people who have died. These benefits include health benefits for certain Americans, unemployment benefits, temporary assistance in times of need, and monthly payments that are distributed to people, such as retired seniors. These monthly payments lead many people to compare a pension and Social Security, but in fact Social Security is a form of insurance, not a pension. Social Security benefits come from federal taxes paid by working Americans, who receive payments later in life based on how much they have paid into the system.

A key difference between a pension and Social Security is that the latter is an American government program versus a privately run pension plan. They are also administered and funded differently, and these benefits are designed for different people. Pensions are used all over the world to provide retirement income to people, and they are not available to those with disabilities, unless those disabilities were acquired at work, or people who have never worked. Social Security is a large insurance pool into which all working Americans pay.

It is possible for an American to have access to both, as for instance in the case of someone who works for a company that funds retirement accounts for its employees. In fact, since Social Security checks are often very low, it is difficult to survive on them alone, unless the beneficiary owns his or her home, or has a secondary source of income like a job, a pension, or a trust fund. A pension, on the other hand, is designed to provide enough money for the beneficiary to survive on the payments alone, although this is not always possible.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon346336 — On Aug 27, 2013

I am trying to understand the difference between social security and retirement that I pay in.

By anon267245 — On May 09, 2012

Why do government (local, state, federal) pension plans pay more than social security? In some states after 43 years they can retire with their full pay monthly.

Why does government retirement allow an age of 55 as compared to 66 for social security? I calculated my social security payment at 66 and making $65,000 per year and when I calculate state pensions, they get $1,000 more with only working 25 years.

By anon234636 — On Dec 13, 2011

My vested pension from an old employer comes to $180.00 Can I collect this and social security, also?

By anon149077 — On Feb 03, 2011

can one collect from a pension plan and social security at the same time? if so any limitations?


By anon124212 — On Nov 04, 2010

Can one collect a private pension and Social Security?

By surfNturf — On Aug 06, 2010

Greenweaver- I also know that Social Security offers a one-time death benefit of $255 for the surviving family members.

In addition, a surviving spouse caring for dependent children is also eligible for a monthly annuity. An annuity is also available for a spouse with no children, but the amount is reduced.

By suntan12 — On Aug 06, 2010

Greenweaver- Did you know that members of the military can enjoy a military pension and Social Security benefits as well?

Although in many other fields Social Security benefits are reduced if someone has a private pension. But those serving in the military are offered this additional benefits.

They still have to wait to make their Social Security claim until age 67 for full benefits.

By GreenWeaver — On Aug 06, 2010

Mutsy- That is really interesting. I didn’t know that. I think that the Social Security retirement benefits should be paid out monthly and not as a lump sum pension.

Getting all the money at once with a lump-sum pension can cause the retiree to lose their entire savings.

However, by getting the money in installments like an annuity, a retiree will be able to budget accordingly.

Since the Social Security age to begin accepting Social Security benefits is 67, many seniors have to make their money last. By receiving payments monthly this will ensure that they won't run out of money.

By mutsy — On Aug 06, 2010

Social Security began when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law in 1937. The Social Security history is very interesting. Social Security came about partly due to the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression.

FDR wanted to make sure that Americans had a safety net for their future. Social Security benefits at the time of inception were offered as a lump sum payment. It was not until 1942 that monthly benefit began.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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