For years people have been worried about Social Security’s future, but what is the actual outlook? According to the federal government, unless Congress acts to intervene, Social Security shortfalls are expected beginning in 2035.
Social Security retirement benefits are financed primarily through dedicated payroll taxes paid by workers and their employers, with employees and employers splitting the tax equally. Employers pay 6.2 percent of an employee’s income into the Social Security system, and the employee kicks in the same. Self-employed individuals pay the entire 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax. This money is put into a trust fund that is used to pay retiree benefits.
The trustees of the Social Security trust fund have reported that if Congress doesn’t take action, the fund’s balance will reach zero in 2035. This is because more people are retiring than are working, so the program is paying out more in benefits than it is taking in. Additionally, seniors are living longer, so they receive benefits for a longer period of time.
Once the fund runs out of money, it does not mean that benefits stop altogether. Instead, retirees’ benefits would be cut. According to the trustees’ projections, the fund’s income would be sufficient to pay retirees 77 percent of their total benefit.
Congress can act to shore up Social Security before this happens. Some ideas include eliminating the cap on benefits. Right now, workers only pay Social Security tax on the first $137,700 of income (in 2020). That amount can be increased, so that higher-earning workers pay more in taxes. The Social Security tax or the retirement age could also be increased.
Social Security is immensely popular and lawmakers are unlikely to allow steep benefit cuts to take place. The last time the program was in financial trouble and received a major overhaul was in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan and congressional Democrats struck a deal to increase taxes and gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 67.
***Member of the National Academy of Elderlaw Attorneys