He was ambivalent about raising the retirement age. “I’d be more opposed to privatizing than raising the age,” he said. He didn’t think that had as much effect on him. Quealy-Gainer saw the point that people were not working as much in back-breaking factory jobs as they once were, and maybe that justified an increase in the age for full benefits. He also understood why people have to keep working. “I’d love to retire early. Doing the work I do now and not being able to retire early is a daunting thought,” he said, adding that his parents would like to retire early too, but they cannot. His father, a stockbroker, lost his business, and the family has had to live on their 401(k) savings, which means they have to keep working to receive their full benefits. So Quealy-Gainer understood the importance of Social Security.

However, he didn’t know about disability and survivors’ benefits, which could be important to him as a young father. He asked me whether he should buy life insurance when his baby was born. Yes, I replied, and that began a discussion of Social Security survivors’ benefits, which should be factored into the amount of insurance he needed to buy. His annual statement from Social Security advised that he had earned enough credits to qualify for both disability and survivors’ benefits.

If he became disabled right now, his family would receive $898 a month. If he were to die, his son would receive $1013 a month—that’s $12,000 a year his family could count on. Life insurance would make up the rest of the lost income. “This is the first I’ve heard of this,” he said. As I have written before, Social Security is widely popular but not well understood.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.