As for its present, the program created during the Great Depression has quickly become a last resort for older Americans before they ever thought they'd need it, CBS News Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis reports.
After working 40 years in the chemical industry, Michael Tait of Locust Grove, Va., could not wait until he turned 66, the full retirement age to collect Social Security. He can't find a job.
"Lowe's and Home Depot and the grocery stores and the gas station," he said, listing the places where he's tried to get work. "Nothing."
With his unemployment checks running out, Tait decided to apply for his Social Security retirement benefits two years early, at 64, despite the catch that when you collect early, your benefit is cut up to 25 percent permanently. For Tait, that's a loss of $252 every month.
"Something coming in right now," said Tait. "I got to take care of my family, and that's the most important thing."
In New York, semi-retired medical lab technician Bobby Lee said he will apply for Social Security as soon as he's allowed to, when he turns 62 next year.
"You'll get less, but nobody guarantees how long you're going to live," Lee said.
Lee and Tait are part of a growing trend.
In 2009, 72 percent of the 2.7million new filers opted into Social Security early, according to the Social Security Administration. In 2007 and '08, 74 percent did, a record high. In 1980, just 57 percent collected early and in 1970, 47 percent.
Michael Astrue heads the Social Security Administration and says even as more elderly Americans postpone retirement many more are having it forced upon them.
"This is a remarkable program," said Astrue. "People who would not have taken retirement benefits but for the recession are taking benefits, we believe, because they have no real choice."
According to data from the AARP, the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the great recession began in December 2007, the rate of unemployed workers age 55 and older has increased by 115 percent, faster than for any other age group. Meanwhile, 53 percent of the older unemployed have been out of work for more than six months.
"I just have a feeling that this government is not going to allow senior citizens like myself and others just to die on the vine," Tait said.
He's just one of millions living out a 75-year-old promise earlier than they had planned.