Social Security recipients often worry whether their benefits will be paid as promised throughout retirements that could last 25 years or more. Anxiety over impending changes to Social Security leads some people to claim benefits too early. Fearing cuts, many people under their full retirement age take benefits as soon as they are eligible. By starting benefits at 62 or before full retirement age (66 this year), retirees wind up with permanently reduced benefits — up to 25% lower — for the rest of their lives.
So far, presidential candidates have done little to assuage fears, revealing few details about their plans for Social Security. The next president, however, will need to deal with faltering program financing and a Congress that in recent years has balked over repayment of money borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund.
What happens if the Social Security Trust Fund becomes insolvent? Even if that situation were to occur, it would not mean the program would run entirely out of money. Social Security would continue to receive payroll taxes from today’s workers and their employers. Benefits would still be paid — but not in full.
That was the situation the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund was in at the beginning of 2015. The program was due to become insolvent by the end of this year. Debt limit legislation passed by Congress last fall averted a looming 20% benefit cut that was due to affect about 10 million disabled Social Security recipients. The fix is just short-term though, and only expected to extend solvency another five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
In addition, although last fall’s debt - limit legislation contained a number of provisions supported by TSCL, it was negotiated almost entirely in secret, and contained troubling surprise Social Security changes affecting people very close to full retirement age. At the end of this month, married couples younger than age 66 will no longer be able to use a benefit filing strategy known as “file and suspend” that allowed some couples to maximize their overall Social Security income. The change cut benefits for these couples by thousands of dollars — retirement income they no longer can count on. A related change affected people who were under the age of 62 at the end of last year.
TSCL encourages you to attend town halls and to learn as much as you can about the plans of presidential and Congressional candidates for Social Security. Candidates need to make their plans clear so the voters can make an informed choice. To learn more about leading proposals to fix Social Security’s financing shortfalls, read The Social Security Fix It Book from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College at www.crr.bc.edu.