SOCIAL SECURITY: FACTS AND FIXES

Here’s issue #9 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 12/4/11. A topic that is receiving quite a bit of attention in the deficit reduction discussions is Social Security, although it has no impact on the deficit. Sorry this is a bit long, but the complexity is tough to abbreviate further.

Social Security does have an imbalance between available resources and projected benefits over the 75 year time horizon that is typically used for analysis of it. There is a trust fund that the Social Security deductions from wages go into. It currently has a surplus, but it is projected to run out in 2037 as more people, i.e., the baby boomers, begin collecting benefits. After 2037 and until 2086, the on-going payments from workers would be able to pay about 75% of the benefits Social Security recipients are currently promised. So even in a worst case scenario, beneficiaries over the next 75 years will receive significant Social Security checks.

Social Security is the country’s most effective anti-poverty program. Poverty among seniors is roughly 10%, but without Social Security it would be 45%. Social Security lifts 13 million seniors out of poverty. [1]

Note that Social Security does not have an impact on the deficit. It is funded through the dedicated payroll tax and Social Security Trust Fund. Therefore, discussions of Social Security’s long-term solvency should be kept separate from the deficit reduction discussions.

Social Security’s imbalance can be fixed by reducing the benefits it provides or increasing the revenue for it or a combination of the two. Key options include the following: [2] [3]

  • Increase revenue
    • Currently, Social Security tax is paid only on earnings up to $106,800. If this cap were increased, some or all of the shortfall would be eliminated. The Social Security tax was designed to cover 90% of all wages and is adjusted for wage growth. But because of the dramatic rise in very high wages, only 83% of wages are currently taxed. If the cap were increased to cover 90% of wages, it would be roughly $180,000. If this were done without increasing future benefits for those who paid more into the Trust Fund as a result, the shortfall would be eliminated.
    • The current payroll tax is 12.4% with half paid by the employee and half paid by the employer. If the rate was increase by 2% to 14.4%, the shortfall would be eliminated. This would have a negative impact on low wage workers, for whom the Social Security tax is their biggest tax burden. An increase of this amount or less could be phased in over time to lessen the impact, but this would also reduce the amount of the shortfall eliminated.
    • If part of the current Trust Fund balance were invested in stocks, presumably a privately managed index fund, the earnings would likely be significantly greater than the current earnings from the Treasury Bonds in which the Trust Fund is invested. This could reduce the shortfall by up to a third.
    • Various other sources of revenue could cover part or all of the shortfall. Possibilities include Social Security taxes on high incomes that are above the current or future tax cap and using some or all of the estate tax for Social Security.
  • Reduce amounts paid to current or future beneficiaries
    • Reduce the annual cost of living increase that is linked to inflation. Reducing the increase by 1% each year, would reduce the shortfall by 78%. However, well into the future, this would mean that Social Security benefits would be much less than they are today in relation to the cost of living. Furthermore, some data suggest that the current cost of living increases are less than the typical increases in expenses for seniors.
    • Raise the age at which full benefits can be collected. Currently, this age is increasing from 65 to 67 by 2022. This increase could be accelerated or the age could be increased to 68 or 70, but would reduce the shortfall by less than a third. Arguments for this are that we are living longer and healthier on average and, therefore, could work longer before collecting Social Security. However, this is less true for minorities and for those in physically demanding jobs.
    • Reduce the dollar amount paid to future beneficiaries. If, for example, benefits to new enrollees were cut by 5% starting immediately, the shortfall would be cut by about 30%.

Note that given that these projections go out 75 years, the assumptions that are made about economic growth and the growth of the labor force have a significant impact on the estimates of the shortfall and the impact of possible solutions. Small differences in the assumptions of annual growth have large impacts over 75 years.

In conclusion, relatively modest changes to Social Security can put it on a solid financial basis for the next 75 years. A variety of options for increasing revenue and/or reducing benefits are available, and could be carefully crafted and implemented to shield the neediest recipients from harm and provide amply advance notice of changes to participants. [4]


[1]       Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 12/4/11, “Social Security,” http;//www.cbpp.org/research under Areas of Research, Social Security.

[2]       U.S. News & World Report, 5/18/10, “12 Ways to Fix Social Security,” http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/planning-to-retire/2010/05/18.

[3]       S. Sass, A. Munnell, & A. Eschtruth, 2009, “The Social Security Fix-It Book,” Center for Retirement Research,BostonCollege.

[4]       Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 12/4/11, “Policy Basics: Top Ten Facts about Social Security on the Program’s 75th Anniversary,” http;//www.cbpp.org/research under Areas of Research, Social Security.

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