Social Security is often portrayed in one of two ways, either as its own self-contained program (the “trust fund perspective”) or as part of the broader budget (“the unified budget perspective”). Although focusing on these two lenses is sensible, the reality is more complicated; especially when it comes to the role of general revenue. Even though Social Security is mainly funded by a 12.4 percent payroll tax, general revenue comes into play even under the trust fund perspective. Indeed, since 1965, over $2.5 trillion ($3.1 trillion in today's dollars) of the $20 trillion of income received by the Social Security Trust Funds has come from sources other than the payroll tax, representing 12 percent of the total.
There are three main ways that general revenue has directly or indirectly made its way into the Social Security Trust Funds:
- Direct transfers from the General Fund: The general fund has occasionally reimbursed the Social Security Trust Funds in specific cases to compensate it for policy changes that would otherwise lower its balance. Most recently, Congress passed a payroll tax cut for 2011 and 2012, lowering the payroll tax rate by 2 percentage points to stimulate the economy but authorizing a general fund transfer so the Social Security Trust Funds would be no worse off. The holiday was responsible for $225 billion of transfers. Congress has also used general fund transfers to pay for extra benefit credits to active-duty military between 1957 and 2001, special age-72 benefits for people not covered by the program by 1968, a payroll tax credit in 1984, and other reasons. Overall, nearly $260 billion has been transferred from the General Fund since 1965, or $300 billion in today's dollars.
- Taxation of Benefits: Since 1983, retirees with significant income from sources other than Social Security have paid income tax on a portion of their Social Security benefits (prior to that, benefits were tax-free for everyone). Although this money is paid via the income tax, it is credited back to the Social Security Trust Funds. Since 1983, $370 billion has been transferred from the General Fund due to the taxation of benefits, or $440 billion in today's dollars.
- Interest paid on Social Security bonds: The Social Security Trust Funds currently contain $2.8 trillion of assets, mainly as a result of significant surpluses in the 1990s and 2000s. That money is invested in U.S. Treasury bonds, which earn interest paid from general revenue. The trust funds earned about $100 billion of interest last year and have earned about $1.9 trillion since 1965, or $2.3 trillion in today's dollars.
On August 15, PublicSquare.net hosted a debate on Social Security featuring CRFB's very own Ed Lorenzen. The event, titled "Can Simpson-Bowles Save Social Security?" involved Benjamin Veghte, Research Director at Social Security Works, and Lorenzen, a Senior Advisor at CRFB who served on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that was chaired by Erskine Bowles and Al Simpson. The debate was moderated by Taylor Kinzler.
It was on this day 79 years ago that President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act of 1935. While lawmakers have expanded the program since 1935 and changed it in many ways, the Social Security system still protects Americans against the “vicissitudes of modern life.” Social Security is the flagship program of social insurance in the United States.
It’s no secret that Social Security faces serious long-term funding challenges, as the latest report from the program's very own trustees highlights. If no action is taken, all benefits are set to drop by 23 percent in 2033, when all the programs assets would dry up, and disability benefits are on course to drop by almost one-fifth by 2016 when the Disability Insurance trust fund goes dry. It is critical that lawmakers address the gap between Social Security spending and revenues so the program can enjoy another 79 years (and more) of providing full benefits to retired workers, disabled workers, spouses, and any surviving family members. And the longer we wait, the more difficult solutions will become.
Luckily, CRFB has an incredible interactive tool to get lawmakers and the public started on picking and choosing from many reform options to set the program on a sustainable path: CRFB’s Social Security Reformer.
Maya MacGuineas, President of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, wrote an op-ed distributed via McCatchy wire service that appeared in several papers around the county, including today's Providence Journal. It is reposted here.
The Social Security Trustees recently showed what it would take to make Social Security solvent over 75 years: immediately raise everyone’s taxes by over 2.8 percentage points, immediately cut everyone’s benefits by 17 percent, or cut benefits for new beneficiaries immediately by 21 percent. They also warn that those costs will go up substantially if our leaders in Washington procrastinate. Indeed, waiting until 2033 will increase the needed adjustments by 50 percent. As they explain:
If substantial actions are deferred for several years, the changes necessary to maintain Social Security solvency would be concentrated on fewer years and fewer generations. Much larger changes would be necessary if action is deferred until the combined trust fund reserves become depleted in 2033.
The Trustees make clear that there are two costs to waiting.
In the recent Social Security Trustees report, the issue of same sex marriage made a surprising appearance. Without calling much attention to it, the Trustees assume that all states will eventually legalize same-sex marriage. And while this would increase spending somewhat, they estimate the financial impact would be minimal.
Rep. John Larson (D-CT) earlier in the summer unveiled his plan to reform Social Security, a plan that has now been evaluated by the Social Security Administration's Office of the Chief Actuary (OACT). The reform would fully close Social Security's 75-year shortfall and about three-quarters of the 75th year deficit, meaning that it would ensure 75-year solvency but not sustainable solvency.
First, thank you. It is tremendous to see a Member of Congress addressing Social Security’s challenges with real fixes. As we have pointed out, the longer we delay, the harder those fixes will be.
The plan is certainly a useful contribution to the debate, recognizing not only the magnitude of the changes that will have to be made to close Social Security’s gap, but also that increasing scheduled benefits, as the plan does, will require significant revenue increases that go beyond just higher taxes on the wealthy.
- Raise the payroll tax rate by 2 percentage points to 14.4 percent, phased in over 20 years
- Apply the payroll tax to income above $400,000 unindexed (the current taxable maximum would catch up around the mid-2040s due to indexation) and credit benefits for that income through a special lower "AIME+" benefit factor
- Increase the income threshold for the taxation of Social Security benefits to $50,000/$100,000
- Increase the lowest PIA factor in the benefit formula from 90 to 93 percent
- Use the faster-growing CPI-E for cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs)
- Create minimum benefit of 125 percent of the poverty line for people who have worked 30 years or more
- Invest one-quarter of the trust fund in equities
- Re-allocate revenue to the DI trust fund to keep it solvent
As we have discussed numerous times, the Social Security program is on an unsustainable path, and its combined trust fund will be depleted within the next 20 years. If Congress does not act to reform the system, all beneficiaries will see a 23 percent benefit cut upon the exhaustion of the funds. The Disability Insurance portion of the fund is in more immediate danger: it is expected to be insolvent by 2016, triggering an immediate 19 percent cut in disability benefits.
On Tuesday, Ben Ritz of the Concord Coalition published an article entitled "Impending Crisis Should Force Action on Social Security in the Next Congress." He warns of the looming insolvency and details a commonly offered but insufficient solution to the issue:
The release of the Social Security Trustees Report just two weeks after CBO released its long-term outlook gives us a good opportunity to compare how the two reports differ in their projections. Overall, CBO anticipates Social Security will be in greater financial trouble than the Trustees do, forecasting an exhaustion date for the combined trust fund three years earlier in 2030 and a 75-year actuarial shortfall that is more than one-third higher. But there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Specifically, CBO projects a 75-year actuarial shortfall of 4 percent of taxable payroll compared to the Trustees' figure of 2.9 percent; as a percent of GDP, these figures are 1.4 and 1 percent, respectively.