Congressional Inaction Could Lead to Show Down Over Social Security Benefits

With unemployment still 5.4%, and less payroll tax revenue to finance the benefits of swelling Social Security rolls, how is the program’s financing faring during our 2021 economic recovery? The Social Security Trustees are expected to soon release a much-anticipated annual report that gives us our first real glimpse of how the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic affected Social Security’s retirement, survivors and disability programs in 2020.

Early last year, prior to even knowing the impact of the pandemic, the Social Security Trustees forecast that the financing of the Social Security Trust Funds would turn negative this year. The Social Security Trustees forecast that the Social Security retirement and survivors trust fund would receive a total of $995.6 billion in 2021 but estimated that program costs would be more than $1,019.2 billion.

In 2020, the Social Security Trust Fund received far less in revenues than expected, due to three reasons:

  1. Lower than expected payroll tax revenues. Payroll taxes account for roughly 89% of Social Security’s financing. But in 2020, businesses nationwide temporarily shuttered due to emergency stay at home orders. In addition, widespread layoffs, reductions in work hours, and job losses resulted in the collection of fewer payroll tax revenues. Emergency legislation that was passed last year allowed employers to even temporarily defer payment of Social Security payroll taxes until December of 2022 to help companies shore up cash flow and stay in business. While the job market is getting back on its feet again in 2021, unemployment is still higher than it was prior to the pandemic, and payroll tax revenue has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.
  2. Lower revenues from the taxation of Social Security benefits. About 4% of Social Security’s financing comes from the taxation of benefits. Because many retired household incomes were impacted by lower earnings, along with business and retirement account losses in 2020; the amount of revenues from the taxation of Social Security benefits was lower in 2020.
  3. Interest rates fell. Seven percent of Social Security financing comes from the interest earned by the assets held by the Social Security Trust Funds. Those assets are actually non-marketable government bonds, like I.O.U.s from the U.S. Treasury payable to the Social Security Trust Fund. That income stream was reduced because short term interest rates dropped to extreme lows during 2020 and so far in 2021.

In order to cover shortfalls — in 2021, and every year thereafter — the Social Security Trust Fund will liquidate the special issue bonds it holds in order to pay scheduled benefits until the program becomes insolvent. According to the Social Security Trustees in 2020, without Congressional action, the combined Social Security Trust Fund (retirement, survivors, and disability) will become insolvent around 2034, a little more than ten years from now. At the time of insolvency, Social Security will only receive enough revenues to pay about 77% of benefits. In other words, Congressional inaction could result in an automatic benefit cut of about 23%.

To improve program solvency, TSCL’s surveys have found that a large majority of survey participants, 72%, support applying the Social Security payroll tax to all earnings instead of just the first $142,800 in earnings.

Sources: The 2020 Social Security Trustees Annual Report, April 22, 2020.