Is it too late to save Social Security?
posted at 9:38 pm on September 4, 2012 by Steve Eggleston
For a long time, it has been argued that Social Security was the easier of the two entitlement “bombs” to defuse. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) infamously said last year that nothing needed to be done to Social Security until the 2030s. Social Security Public Trustee Charles Blahous, author of Social Security: The Unfinished Work, argues that it may already be too late to save Social Security “as we know it”:
Social Security’s future, at least in the form it has existed dating back to FDR, is now greatly imperiled. The last few years of legislative neglect — due to a failure of national policy leadership coming just as the baby boomers have begun to retire — have drastically harmed the program’s future financial prospects. Individuals now planning their financial futures, whether as taxpayers or as beneficiaries, should be pricing in a substantial risk that the federal government will not be able to maintain Social Security as a self-financing, stand-alone program over the long term. If Social Security financing corrections are not enacted in 2013, or at the very latest by 2015, it becomes fairly likely that they will not be enacted at all.
Blahous gave three reasons for a lack of hope for resolving the Social Security crisis – the Baby Boomers starting to retire, the inability of either side to compromise in the face of a lack of one-party domination, and the lack of seriousness of many in power to address the issue. Allow me to add a fourth – the inability to even address the Disability Insurance (DI) portion. Despite outgo in the DI program outstripping taxes since the end of 2005, outgo outstripping both taxes and interest on the trust fund since early 2009, and predictions in each of the last several Trustees’ Reports that the trust fund would zero out sometime this decade (with the 2012 Trustees’ Report putting that year as 2016), nothing has been done to address this. Even the assumed “solution” of chaining it to the larger Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund, which would extend the life of DI roughly 17 years at the cost of shortening the life of OASI roughly 2 years, has not made it to the floor of either House of Congress.
The overall problem is much worse, if not quite as immediate, as the 1983 OASI crisis, or the 1994 DI crisis. In 1983, OASI merely had to weather a short-term storm before running nearly 30 years of surpluses, though it would have collapsed again in the 2020s and, if tethered to DI, collapsed the entire system by 2040. In 1994, the fix for the drain of the DI fund was even simpler because it was merely a short-term fix designed to last 22 years – reallocate a larger portion of the FICA/SECA tax toward DI, possible because the larger OASI fund was projected to run a couple decades of surpluses with or without the reallocation. Now, both programs are in the red, and indeed, about to be deeper in the hole than projected in the mid-1980s as this graph on the projected balances from the 1982 and 2012 Trustees’ Reports from Blahous illustrates:
In 1983, the long-term solutions, which barely made it through Congress, were to delay the COLA adjustment by 6 months, bring federal employees into the system, subject the self-employed to the same total tax rate as “traditional” employees and employers, and subject half (the employer-funded portion) the benefits of the “wealthy” to the income tax (which, thanks to a lack of any adjustment for inflation, is hitting more seniors every year). Blahous notes that the divide now is at least twice as wide as it was then.
Worse, two of the main “solutions” often offered up by those on either side of the “limit benefits vs. tax more” divide, limit benefit growth to price inflation instead of wage inflation for at least the “high-income” earners, and raise the cap on the FICA/SECA tax to an undetermined maximum (up to and including infinity) without allowing any increased benefits, appear to be unable to solve the long-term problem on their own. Indeed, while either of the two most-extreme versions of the “solutions”, indexing all benefits to price inflation and eliminating the cap on the FICA/SECA tax entirely, may have passed the “75-year actuary test” back in 2005, neither alone will work in 2012.
What does continuing to do nothing until it is too late mean for Social Security? Blahous explains:
Upon merging into the general fund, Social Security benefits would be far less secure going forward. Benefit payments would have to compete with other annual spending priorities, and would be limited to those deemed affordable given pressures elsewhere in the budget. They would thus be much more susceptible to sudden reductions, means-tests, and other episodic changes to which general fund financed programs have long been subjected.
If this all happens, and renders tomorrow’s Social Security benefits less secure than today’s, it would be a tragic irony: the outcome would have been brought about largely by supporters of Social Security having countenanced the tactics of delay to the point that the program’s unique political protections could no longer be preserved. Those who care about the Social Security program need to clearly understand the consequence of this ongoing neglect; that time for a realistic financing solution has nearly run out.
Just as a reminder, when the trust funds run out of money, whether it be the DI fund in 2016 should nothing be done, the OASI fund in 2035 should nothing be done, or the combined OASDI funds in 2033 should that combining be the only thing done, the benefits paid out by said fund(s) will be cut by over 20%.
There is also the very real cost of getting DI to the middle of 2016, and OASI barely into 2035 (or if one prefers, the combined programs into 2033); the monetization of the trust funds. The Trustees put the difference between non-trust-fund revenues and expenditures of the combined OASDI programs at $4.993 trillion in current dollars (inflation-adjusted $3.506 trillion in 2012 dollars) through 2032, the last full year of “normal” operations. In 2032, the inflation-adjusted shortfall is projected to be roughly $349 billion in 2012 dollars (non-adjusted $586 trillion), or nearly a third of all the discetionary spending by the federal government this fiscal year, with an ever-increasing shortfall in succeeding years. Unfortunately, that money doesn’t exist outside of a series of IOUs, which means it will have to be borrowed, taxes will have to be increased, other spending will have to be cut, or some combination of the three will need to be done.
Before that, specifically in 2026, total spending on Social Security on an inflation-adjusted basis will exceed what will be spent in federal discretionary outlays this fiscal year. If all that is done is Social Security remains a drag on the larger federal budget by paying out all of the promised benefits, by the time 2070 rolls around and most of the Gen-Xers (including me) die off, in inflation-adjusted terms, spending on Social Security will be more than what either the White House Office of Management and Budget or the Congressional Budget Office expects the federal government to take in next fiscal year, when Taxmageddon hits.
Social Security, in its current form, is doomed. Waiting until the last few months, as was done in both 1983 and 1994, is not exactly an option. The window for an “easy” solution, if it hasn’t already closed, is rapidly closing. The person who is in the White House after January 19, 2013, and those in Congress next year, will have to make hard choices quickly.