Social Security

Delaying Social Security Changes Ties Policymakers' Hands

Our analysis of the 2015 Social Security Trustees' report noted that "As time goes on, it will be more difficult to secure the Social Security programs for current and future generations with thoughtful changes instead of abrupt benefit cuts or tax increases." We previously detailed how much bigger changes need to be to keep Social Security solvent if lawmakers wait for in both the 2013 and 2014 reports. While the 2015 report showed a slight improvement in the program's projected finances, making the necessary changes slightly smaller, the problem with delaying change remains.

The Trustees state that it would take a 2.62 percentage point increase in the payroll tax to make the program solvent over 75 years, making the rate over 15 percent instead of the current 12.4 percent. Delaying the increase by ten years raises the necessary increase to 3.3 percentage points for a new rate of 15.7 percent. Lawmakers could also undertake gradual payroll tax rate increases, but those rates would need to be slightly higher, particularly if they waited until 2026. Finally, waiting until 2034, when the Trustees project the trust fund to become insolvent, would require a 4 percentage point tax increase for a new rate of 16.4 percent. By then, a gradual increase would not be able to keep the trust fund solvent.

Gap Widens Between Trustees and CBO on Social Security

Although the Social Security Trustees estimate the program's financial outlook has slightly improved relative to last year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) takes a different view. As with Medicare, CBO is far more pessimistic about Social Security's future. This is true relative to last year, but especially relative to the Social Security Trustees. Indeed, while the Trustees project a 2034 insolvency date (on a combined basis) and 2.7 percent of payroll 75-year shortfall, CBO estimates insolvency will come five years earlier, and that the program will have a 75-year shortfall of 4.4 percent of payroll.

The difference between CBO and the Trustees represents a widening gap between the two scoring agencies that first appeared in 2013. In that year, CBO estimated the shortfall to be 25 percent larger than the Trustees' estimate. In 2014, they estimated it to be nearly 40 percent larger than their counterparts. And this year, they estimate it to be nearly two-thirds larger. The bulk of this difference can be explained by four differences in assumptions:

Becerra Introduces Bill to Combine Social Security Trust Funds

Just hours in advance of the release of Wednesday's 2015 Social Security Trustees' Report, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Ways & Means Social Security Subcommittee, and 22 Democratic co-sponsors introduced H.R. 3150, the One Social Security Act, a bill that would merge the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Old-Age and Survivors' Insurance (OASI) trust funds into one combined Social Security trust fund. Aimed at averting the impending depletion of the SSDI trust fund, combining the trust funds would result in one insolvency date of 2034, according to the 2015 Trustees' Report.

As one of the Fiscal Speed Bumps that Congress will need to address before the end of the session, the SSDI trust fund will be unable to pay the full amount of the program's scheduled benefits by the end of 2016. The One Social Security Act would change the structure of the Social Security trust funds, merging the disability and old-age funds into one that collects the entire 12.4 percent of payroll taxes rather than the current split of 1.8 percent to the disability fund and 10.6 percent to the old-age fund. By combining the funds, insolvency for the combined program would be in 2034, reducing the OASI program's solvency by 1 year and extending SSDI's solvency.

CRFB Breaks Down the Social Security Trustees' Report

Following the release of the 2015 Social Security Trustees' report yesterday, CRFB has released a report summarizing the myriad statistics and projections that the Trustees published. Our report discusses the solvency of both the disability and old-age portions of the program, the long-term shortfall of the program, and how the projections changed since last year.

The report shows a similar, though slightly improved, outlook to last year for the program. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust fund is still projected to be exhausted in late 2016, leading to a 19 percent cut in benefits. The insolvency dates for the old-age and combined trust funds have been pushed back one year to 2035 and 2034, respectively, at which point benefits would be cut by 21 percent for all beneficiaries. The program faces a 2.68 percent of payroll shortfall, or 0.96 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that lawmakers must close to ensure solvency over the next 75 years.

Click here to read the full paper.

As our report explains, these financial issues are the result of an already-existing and widening gap between spending and revenue.

As the number of beneficiaries in the program continues to grow, outlays have already increased from 10.4 percent of payroll (4.0 percent of GDP) in 2000 to 14.1 percent of payroll (5.0 percent of GDP) today. The Trustees project they will continue to grow to 16.7 percent of payroll (6.0 percent of GDP) by 2040, dip slightly, and then grow to 18.0 percent of payroll (6.2 percent of GDP) by 2090.

Meanwhile, revenues will fail to keep up – growing slightly as a percent of payroll from 12.8 percent today to 13.3 percent in 2090, while actually falling slightly as a percent of GDP after the 2020s from 4.8 percent in 2030 to 4.6 percent by 2090.

Social Security Trustees Sound the Solvency Alarm

The Social Security and Medicare Trustees have released their reports on the long-term finances of each program, showing those programs remain financially unsound and on the road toward insolvency. The reports project the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust fund being exhausted late next year, the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund to run dry in 2030, and the theoretically combined Social Security trust funds to deplete their results by 2034.

Overall, the Trustees project Social Security to be in somewhat better health than projected last year – when the insolvency date was 2033 – but still in need of a significant course correction.

According to the Trustees, Social Security faces a 75-year shortfall of 2.68 percent of payroll (0.96 percent of GDP), meaning the payroll tax would have to be raised immediately from 12.4 to about 15 percent to ensure 75-year solvency. By 2090, the payroll tax would need to rise further to about 17 percent. Alternatively, policymakers could reduce benefits by about 16 percent today, with reductions growing to 27 percent by 2090.

Social Security Costs Keep Increasing Over the Long Term

CBO's Long-Term Budget Outlook, released last month, included updated projections for Social Security and Medicare, including individuals' expected benefits and taxes paid. The Social Security trust fund projections are very similar to last year's: the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund is scheduled to be insolvent sometime in Fiscal Year 2017 (which starts in October 2016) and the larger Old Age and Survivor's Insurance Trust Fund is expected to run out of money in 2031. If the two programs are considered as one (if Congress reallocates funds from one to another as necessary), the combined fund will be exhausted in 2029, one year sooner than projected in last year's report.

Some information that wasn't in last year's report (but was in a separate publication on Social Security) explains that each succeeding generation will get more out of Social Security than they paid in. Individuals born in the 1940s are expected to, on average, receive $1.03 for every dollar paid in Social Security taxes. This amount increases over time, with those born in the 1980s scheduled to receive $1.40 in benefits for every $1 paid in taxes, up from $1.03 for those born in the 1940s. These amounts assume that Social Security will continue to pay full benefits even after the trust fund runs out.

Ways & Means Starts the Conversation on Reforming SSDI

The House Ways & Means Committee held a hearing last week to investigate possible changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program that would encourage beneficiaries to return to work when possible. The hearing, the first on the program for the full committee since 2008, launches a larger conversation on possible improvements to SSDI as depletion of the trust fund's reserves approaches at the end of 2016.

As one of the fiscal speed bumps lawmakers must address in the 114th Congress, the impending insolvency of the SSDI trust fund presents both a need to secure additional program funding and an opportunity to make improvements to better serve the disability community and taxpayers. Some experts argue, and survey results have shown, that some SSDI beneficiaries wish to return to the workforce but are hesitant to do so because of the complexities and potential loss of benefits if they do.

SSDI Solutions Initiative Publishes Issue Brief on Determination & Appeals Process

The McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative has published a second brief in its issue brief series on the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program in preparation for the August 4, 2015 SSDI Solutions Conference. This brief explores the process for determining eligibility for disability benefits as well as how appealing disability decisions works.

To RSVP to the August 4th Conference, click here.

Below is an excerpt from the brief:

The SSDI Program - The Determination & Appeals Process

In order to receive SSDI benefits, workers with disabilities must demonstrate that they fulfilled the work requirements and have an impairment (or combination of impairments) that is expected to prevent them from engaging in substantial work for at least a year (or result in death). Individuals apply at local Social Security Administration (SSA) field offices, but the initial disability decisions are made by state agencies, known as Disability Determination Services (DDS). To decide if an individual is “disabled” as defined in Social Security law, DDS uses a 5-step sequential evaluation process, detailed in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - SSDI Determination Process

Source: Congressional Research Service

Lankford on SSDI: The Time for Reform is Now

On Tuesday, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) wrote an op-ed in The Hill advocating for meaningful reform to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. The SSDI trust fund's pending insolvency is one of the Fiscal Speed Bumps that Congress will need to address before the end of the legislative session next year, and many see it as an opportunity to put in place changes that will extend the trust fund's solvency in perpetuity.

Lankford noted:

The Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund is sustained by payroll taxes on each check. When the trust fund goes insolvent next year, 14 million disabled Americans will face a drastic cut to benefits of almost 20 percent or the fund will have to be replenished with higher taxes.

Some have suggested to fix the insolvency that Congress should only shift funds from Social Security or the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which would reduce those programs’ solvency as well. Clearly, shifting funds does not address the root of the problem.

It is time for a major overhaul of the disability system and a renewed focus on the disabled. Before the SSDI program goes insolvent in 2016, there are things that Congress and the Social Security Administration can do to protect the program for those who rely on it and the taxpayers who fund it.

SSDI Solutions Initiative Releases SSDI Primer

In advance of the August 4th SSDI Solutions Conference, the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative has released a short primer to kick off its new issue brief series. The series will provide basic explanations on how the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program functions with issue briefs based on the program basics, the determination process, program financing, program demographics, and demonstration projects that have been piloted in the past.

To RSVP to the August 4, 2015 SSDI Solutions Conference, click here.

Below is a sample of the material covered in the first brief.

What is Social Security Disability Insurance?
Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, is a component of the Social Security program. It provides cash benefits to insured workers below the retirement age who have a significant disability or illness that is expected to preclude substantial work in the labor market for at least a year or to result in death.

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