Social Security and the Deficit Commission Myths and Realities

Sep 1, 2010

By Kristen Friend, staff U.S. Supreme Court and Congress writer – September 1, 2010

Social Security turned 75 on August 14. While some celebrated its successes, the dominant narrative was instead that Social Security is in trouble. Politicians and pundits took note of Social Security’s anniversary amid renewed warnings about the dire challenges the program is facing.

In the political realm, discussion of Social Security has degraded more to the level of insult slinging and demagoguery than actual policy discussion. Democrats are accusing Republicans of trying to dismantle the nation’s most popular social insurance program (which they are) and Republicans are accusing Democrats of scare mongering about Republicans’ plans (which they are).

However, as is increasingly and unfortunately the case, the additional attention currently being paid to Social Security is not contributing to a better understanding of the program.

Debates about the health of Social Security are not new. Since President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, the program has never met a 75-year test for solubility. [1] Yet, 75 years later, Social Security is still paying all promised benefits to retirees and individuals with disabilities.

President George W. Bush made Social Security “reform” a key goal early in his presidency. However, even with non-stop media coverage and in some cases flat out fear-mongering, the idea of privatizing some or all of the nation’s Social Security program simply did not appeal to the majority of Americans. The inability to pass any changes to Social Security after making “reform” key to his agenda was one of President Bush’s larger legislative failures.

The debate over what, if any, changes should be made to the Social Security system was quieted during the later years of the Bush presidency, but has resurfaced with vigor as President Barack Obama approaches the midway point of his first term. The resurgence of the debate can be attributed to several factors. Republicans, pandering to an increasingly extreme base in the coming 2010 mid-term elections, are using public confusion about the program to foment an atmosphere of fear and panic over looming budget deficits. Ideology also plays a roll. Conservatives do not like Social Security. It is a popular, effective government program that runs counter to the dogma that government can do no good. Finally, some politicians and economists are engaged in a good faith effort to make sure seniors who rely on Social Security and workers who have been promised Social Security will continue to receive benefits into the foreseeable future.

One key group investigating the future of Social Security is President Obama’s deficit commission. In February, the president created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and tasked the commission with developing solutions to help maintain the nation’s long-term fiscal solubility. Social Security leads the commission’s agenda, and members are mandated to produce a series of recommendations by Dec. 1, 2010. [2]

From its inception, the commission has received criticism from the left for its conservative makeup, being comprised of Republicans and moderate- to conservative-leaning Democrats. In a recent Washington Post article, Ezra Klein scored the six Republicans and six Democrats on the commission using DW-NOMINATE rankings. He found that the Senate Democrats on the committee are more conservative than the average Senate Democrat and that the Senate Republicans on the commission are also more conservative than most of their Senate Republican colleagues. The result, in his view, being a committee evenly split in terms of partisan affiliation but right leaning in terms of ideology. [3]

Klein’s analysis of the commission follows a wave of criticism directed at its co-chair, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson. Simpson, proving himself out of touch with working Americans, described Social Security as a “a milk cow with 310 million tits.” In addition to showing a striking lack of tact (the quote coming from a letter written to the head of the National Older Women’s League), Simpson’s rant proves he either does not care about or does not understand the actual workings of the Social Security insurance program. Social Security, funded separately from rest of the federal budget, quite simply pays benefits to those who have paid in. In order to qualify to draw Social Security, an individual must work and contribute to the program for 10 years. Social Security is not means tested; benefits are paid progressively as a percentage of former earnings and contributions.

The mean Social Security benefit is around $14,000 a year, providing 40 percent of retirement income for the average American. [4] According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security lifts 20 million Americans out of poverty. [5] And, according to a recent national survey commissioned by the AARP, 85 percent of adults oppose cutting Social Security and half of non-retired adults support paying higher payroll taxes to ensure the systems stays solvent. Younger Americans, while skeptical about the program’s future, are particularly supportive of the program. 90 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 said they believe Social Security is important. [6]

However, while Social Security is popular, many Americans, particularly young Americans, are skeptical about its future. Much of this can be attributed to the misunderstandings and mistruths that are continuously perpetrated by some in Congress and in the media. Here are the truths behind some of the more common Social Security myths.

1. Social Security adds to the deficit.
Social Security, by law, cannot add to the deficit. It is a separate program, paid into through FICA contributions, with benefits paid only from the revenue it raises. If the trust fund were to be exhausted and current contributions were not adequate to pay benefits, Social Security could not borrow from the general budget. Federal law prohibits Social Security from borrowing.

2. Social Security is broke, and there is no “Trust Fund.”
Conventional wisdom among Social Security skeptics is that the program is out of money now and that there is no Social Security Trust Fund. This is fueled largely by the fact that Social Security did begin to pay more in benefits than it received in taxes earlier than was projected due to the depth of the 2008 recession. Regardless of this fact, The Social Security Trust Fund currently runs a $2.5 trillion surplus. The Economic Policy Institute estimates the surplus will peak at $4.2 trillion in 2024 [7]

Trust Fund intact, with no changes to the program, Social Security is projected to be able to pay 100 percent of benefits until the year 2037. After 2037, Social Security will still be able to pay 75 percent of benefits. [8] A program projected to meet costs almost 3 decades into the future with no adjustments is not a system in crisis. Other government programs would be hard pressed to meet such a standard.

3. The Trust Fund has been raided and is just full of IOUs.
Those who decry the vacuous trust fund, eliciting imagery of a big room with lonely piles of IOUs, are in reality making claims against the creditworthiness of the United States government. True, the Social Security Trust Fund is not sitting around in a lock box as Al Gore eloquently stated. The funds are invested in Treasury Bonds, “full faith and credit” notes that the government issues to many of its creditors. Since the federal government has never missed a payment on its debt, and is not expected to anytime soon, to claim the Trust Fund is full of useless IOUs is disingenuous.

4. The retirement age must be raised because people are living longer
The retirement age argument is tricky because two things are the case: more baby-boomers are soon to retire, and people, on average, are living longer. The argument seems logical on its face, but the reality is very different.

The crux of the issue surrounding the retirement age is that the rise in life expectancy since 1935 is largely due to lower infant mortality rates and is unevenly spread among income levels. Since 1972, life expectancy has increased by 6.5 years for top earners, but by less than two years for workers in the bottom half of the earnings bracket. [9] Because of this disparity, the less affluent, those who most need social security, will see the greatest benefit cut. It is not as difficult to imagine staying in a well-paying office job for a couple more years as it is to continue working lower-paying labor-intensive jobs until age 70.

In addition, the retirement age is already set to increase gradually, due to a 1983 law, until it reaches 67 for people born after 1959.

5. Benefit cuts are needed
To the extent that there will be shortfalls in the Social Security budget in the future, they are minor in relation to other budget expenditures, and can be corrected without cutting benefits. In 1983, when Social Security actually did run out of funds, a “deal” was made with workers to put Social Security back in the black. Payroll taxes were raised, significantly, on middle and lower income workers. The tax increase was highly regressive, but, coupled with a raise in the retirement age, was responsible for building the large surplus Social Security enjoys today.

The increase in taxes on lower income individuals also allowed Reagan to cut taxes on those earning higher incomes. At the time, implicit in the deal was the idea that lower income workers would overpay their taxes for 30 years, at which point higher income individuals would pitch in to relieve some of the burden and cover any funding shortfalls. After a period of overpayment of payroll taxes, the tables would turn, and middle and lower income individuals would begin to underpay payroll taxes with the difference being covered by a raise in income taxes on higher earners. [10]

Thirty years later, the second part of that deal has been conveniently forgotten. Without cutting benefits, and in the spirit of Alan Greenspan’s 1983 recommendations, creating new sources of revenue could increase funds. The cap on Social Security taxed-income, currently $106,800, could be raised or eliminated. Other taxes, like a proposed financial transactions tax, could be implemented. The 75-year projected Social Security deficit is roughly equal to the cost of extending President Bush’s tax cuts on those earning over $250,000 a year for the same period. [11]

The logic, as Paul Krugman stated, is that benefits have to be cut to avoid cuts in benefits. That logic does not add up. [12]

6. Social Security faces the same issues as Medicare and Medicaid.
Social Security often gets lumped in with Medicare and Medicaid as a problem “entitlement” program. It is true, Medicaid and Medicare do face funding problems, but much of this is due to the ballooning costs of health care. Social Security does not face the same problems as Medicare and Medicaid as payouts are not affected by rising health care costs.

Even with these realities, many watching the Social Security debate expect the deficit commission to offer a package of several cuts, including an increase in the retirement age. It is anticipated these cuts will be coupled with some sort of an increase in payroll taxes for wealthier Americans.

Current and future retirees would be well served if politicians would stop confusing the distinction between cuts in Social Security and cuts in the national debt. Mounting deficits are a legitimate concern, but can in no way be attributed to Social Security. Americans, both those receiving Social Security benefits, and those planning to receive benefits in the future, acknowledge the significance of Social Security. A program that is so important to so many Americans deserves an honest debate.














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