Can We Depend On the Social Security Trust Fund?

Can We Depend On the Social Security Trust Fund?

Mary Johnson, editor

Since enactment 84 years ago, Social Security has been the most reliable source of retirement income that most retirees have.  That said, our current Social Security program has a funding imbalance that’s creeping forward.  In 2018 the Congressional Budget Office reported that Social Security’s total benefit costs exceeded its total income, including (for the first time) the “interest” income on the special obligations bonds, or I.O.U.s that are held by the trust fund.  According to the Social Security Trustees, from here forward, Social Security benefits will be financed with a combination of payroll taxes, revenues from the taxation of Social Security income, “interest” income from the special obligation bonds, and net redemptions of those bonds, until the reserves held from the Trust Funds are depleted.

Let’s consider what the I.O.U.s held by Social Security represent.  The I.O.U.s are bookkeeping entries, a lot like entries in checking accounts, but are not represented by real cash sitting in a strong box anywhere.  The U.S Treasury collects Social Security payroll taxes from employers.  In turn, the U.S. Treasury issues I.O.U.s to the Social Security trust fund.  In the meantime, those payroll taxes are immediately used for other federal budget operations.  When more payroll taxes were collected than needed to pay benefits, that reduced the amount of borrowing from the public that was needed for the general revenues, and lowered taxes.  Now, however, the situation has reversed, and the Treasury must increase borrowing from the public to redeem the I.O.U.s held by the trust fund in order to pay benefits.  Increased borrowing, and the cost of interest on the debt, further drives up our federal spending.  According to many economists, that can weaken our economy, and our nation’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Actuaries aren’t in agreement over how many more years of solvency Social Security has left.  The 2018 Social Security Trustees Report estimates that the Social Security Trust Fund will become insolvent in 2034, about 15 years from now.  The more pessimistic Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the depletion date would be two years sooner in 2032, only 13 years away.  If Congress does nothing, and allows the Social Security Trust Fund to become insolvent, the program could still pay benefits, but benefits would be cut to coincide with the amount of revenue received — by about 25%.

In 2018, 74% of participants in TSCL’s 2018 Senior Survey said to improve Social Security’s financing, they support applying the full 12.4% Social Security payroll tax to all earnings, rather than just limiting the amount of wages that are taxable, which is $132,900 in 2019.  Fifty nine percent of survey participants support very gradually raising the Social Security payroll tax by 1% each for workers and employers.  TSCL is working to acquaint Congress with Social Security financing changes that have the broadest support among older Americans.

Source:  “The 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook,” The Congressional Budget Office, June 2018.