We don’t call Social Security “welfare” because it’s a pejorative term and politicians don’t want to offend. So they classify Social Security as something else, when it isn’t. Here’s how I define a welfare program: first, it taxes one group to support another group, meaning it’s pay-as-you-go and not a contributory scheme where people’s own savings pay their later benefits; and second, Congress can constantly alter benefits, reflecting changing needs, economic conditions, and politics. Social Security qualifies on both counts.
Let’s start with its $2.6 trillion trust fund. Doesn’t that prove that people’s payroll taxes were saved to pay for future benefits, disconnecting them from our larger budget problems? Well, no. Since the 1940s, Social Security has been a pay-as-you-go program. Most benefits are paid by payroll taxes on today’s workers; in 2010, those taxes covered 91 percent of benefits. The trust fund’s $2.6 trillion would provide only 3.5 years of benefits, which totaled $700 billion in 2010. The trust fund serves mainly to funnel taxes to recipients, and today’s big surplus is an accident, as Charles Blahous shows in Social Security: The Unfinished Work. In 1983, when the trust fund was nearly exhausted, a presidential commission proposed fixes but underestimated their effects. The large surplus “just developed. It wasn’t planned,” the commission’s executive director said later. Even so, the surplus will disappear as the number of retirees rises.