Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Future Financial Status of the Social Security Program

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Future Financial Status of the Social Security Program

Article excerpt

The concepts of solvency, sustainability, and budget impact are common in discussions of Social Security, but are not well understood. Currently, the Social Security Board of Trustees projects program cost to rise by 2035 so that taxes will be enough to pay for only 75 percent of scheduled benefits. This increase in cost results from population aging, not because we are living longer, but because birth rates dropped from three to two children per woman. Importantly, this shortfall is basically stable after 2035; adjustments to taxes or benefits that offset the effects of the lower birth rate may restore solvency for the Social Security program on a sustainable basis for the foreseeable future. Finally, as Treasury debt securities (trust fund assets) are redeemed in the future, they will just be replaced with public debt. If trust fund assets are exhausted without reform, benefits will necessarily be lowered with no effect on budget deficits.

Introduction

As a result of changes to Social Security enacted in 1983, benefits are now expected to be payable in full on a timely basis until 2037, when the trust fund reserves are projected to become exhausted.1 At the point where the reserves are used up, continuing taxes are expected to be enough to pay 76 percent of scheduled benefits. Thus, the Congress will need to make changes to the scheduled benefits and revenue sources for the program in the future. The Social Security Board of Trustees project that changes equivalent to an immediate reduction in benefits of about 13 percent, or an immediate increase in the combined payroll tax rate from 12.4 percent to 14.4 percent, or some combination of these changes, would be sufficient to allow full payment of the scheduled benefits for the next 75 years.

Since the inception of the Social Security program in 1935, scheduled benefits have always been paid on a timely basis through a series of modifications in the law that will continue. Social Security provides a basic level of monthly income to workers and their families after the workers have reached old age, become disabled, or died. The program now provides benefits to over 50 million people and is financed with the payroll taxes from over 150 million workers and their employers. Further modifications of the program are a certainty as the Congress continues to evolve and shape this program, reflecting the desires of each new generation.

This article describes the financial status of the Social Security program, including an analysis of the concepts of solvency and sustainability and the relationship of Social Security to the overall federal unified budget. The future is uncertain in many respects, and based on new information, projections of the financial status of the Social Security program vary somewhat over time. What is virtually certain is that the benefits that almost all Americans become entitled to and most depend on will be continued into the future with modifications deemed appropriate by their elected representatives in the Congress.

Annual Reports by the Trustees

Each year, starting in 1941, the Social Security Board of Trustees has presented a required report on the financial status of the program to the Congress. The board has six members, including the Secretary of the Treasury as the managing trustee, the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Commissioner of Social Security, plus two public trustees appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate.

The Social Security Act requires that the annual report include (1) the financial operations of the trust funds in the most recent past year, (2) the expected financial operations of the trust funds over the next 5 years, and (3) an analysis of the actuarial status of the program. The recent financial operations and the operations projected for the next few years are a finger on the pulse of the program. The actuarial status of the program is intended to provide an early warning of any potential longer-term financial issues or challenges that will be facing the program. …

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