According to the November update from the Social Security Administration, nearly 61 million people are receiving monthly Social Security benefit checks, roughly two-thirds of whom are retired workers. For these retirees, more than 60% rely on their Social Security check to account for at least half of their monthly income. In other words, without Social Security there would likely be widespread poverty among the elderly.
The stark reality of Social Security: Someone's going to lose
Unfortunately, the program that so many seniors have come to rely on is on the decline, so to speak. Two major demographic shifts -- the ongoing retirement of baby boomers and lengthening life expectancies -- are expected to turn the program's cash inflow into an outflow by the year 2020, according to the Social Security Board of Trustees 2016 report. By 2034, it's estimated that the more than $2.8 trillion currently held in special issue bonds and certificates of indebtedness will have been completely exhausted, at which point an across-the-board cut in benefits of up to 21% may be needed to sustain the program for future generations.
The silver lining throughout Social Security's imminent decline is that there are a bounty of possible fixes -- more than a dozen, to be precise. Some of the Social Security solutions tackle the problem by boosting revenue into the program, while others examine the possibility of cutting benefits in a variety of ways. Thus far, an agreeable solution to fix Social Security has eluded lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
However, there's a stark reality that these lawmakers, Social Security recipients, and working Americans need to understand: There is no "perfect" fix. If Social Security does have a "best solution," it's going to mean that someone has to take a pay cut. In order for the program to serve future generations of retirees, there's going to have to be some give somewhere. The big question is where it'll come from.
Should all workers take a pay cut?
One solution that offers a presumed-to-be-bonafide fix is an immediate, across-the-board payroll tax increase on all working Americans. According to the aforementioned Trustees report from 2016, the researchers estimated a 75-year actuarial deficit of 2.66%, down two basis points from the previous year. In English, this means enacting a 2.66% increase in the payroll tax should allow the program to generate enough revenue that no benefit cuts would be needed until the year 2090.
As a refresher, the payroll tax for Social Security is 12.4%, and responsibility for this tax is often split down the middle between you and your employer, 6.2% each. If you're self-employed, you pay the entire 12.4%. In 2017, the payroll tax applies to every dollar earned between $1 and $127,200. However, wages earned above and beyond $127,200 are free and clear of the payroll tax.
Lifting the payroll tax by 2.66% would mean an aggregate tax of 15.06% on the income of self-employed individuals and a cumulative tax of 7.53% of employees and employers. Workers would have to do with less in their take-home pay, but seniors would more than likely not have to worry about a cut to their Social Security benefits.
Do the rich need to fork over more?
Another solution (and this one is by far the most popular among the public) would be to focus on wealthier Americans and have them pay a larger portion of their income into Social Security. This would be done by tinkering with the payroll tax earnings cap -- the aforementioned $127,200 cap at which wages no longer become taxable by the payroll tax.
During her campaign, Hillary Clinton had suggested raising the payroll tax earnings cap to $250,000. By doing so, there would be a payroll tax moratorium on wages between $127,200 and $250,000, but any wages over $250,000 would be subject to the 12.4% tax. The reason lifting the payroll tax earnings cap is so popular is that it would only affect about one in 10 Americans. Since most working Americans are paying into Social Security with every dollar they earn, it would only make sense to most Americans to see the wealthy have to do the same. It would also wind up eliminating a good portion but not all of the budgetary shortfall in Social Security through 2090.
The downside? Other than the fact that the well-to-do would be taking home less income, they also wouldn't see commensurate benefits from Social Security when they retire, despite paying so much extra into the system.
Do future retirees need to make do with less?
The other side of the equation is to leave the revenue aspect of Social Security alone and tinker with the benefits being paid. Most lawmakers wouldn't dare suggest reducing the benefits of current retirees, but the idea of adjusting the payouts to future retirees is very much on the table, especially for Republican lawmakers.
The most effective way to reduce benefits for a future generation of retirees without using the words "reduce benefits" would be to raise the full retirement age. Your full retirement age is determined by your birth year (you can find yours with this SSA table), and it marks the age at which the SSA determines you're eligible to receive 100% of your monthly benefit. File for benefits before reaching your full retirement age, and you'll take a cut in pay from your full retirement benefit. Wait until after your full retirement age and your benefit will grow beyond 100%.
Raising the full retirement age to 68, 69, or 70 would mean that all brand-new and future retirees would either have to wait longer to receive 100% of their benefit, or they'd have to accept an even bigger reduction in their monthly payout if they claim benefits before reaching their full retirement age. Raising the retirement age could encourage healthy seniors to stay in the workforce longer, thus adding to payroll tax revenue in the process. On the flip side, seniors in poor health or those who can't get a job could be forced to file for benefits at age 62, taking a big cut in lifetime benefits in the process.
Should current retirees deal with reduced income?
It's certainly not a popular solution, but cutting benefits for current retirees is another possible answer to fixing Social Security.
One such example was recently touted in the Social Security Reform Act of 2016, introduced by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), the chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee. Among the many fixes offered by Johnson, one involved switching from the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) to the Chained CPI when it comes to calculating cost-of-living adjustments (COLA).
The difference between the two is that the Chained CPI factors in "substitution," which is the perception that consumers will trade down to lesser expensive goods and services if the price of another good or service rises too much, while the CPI-W does not. Because the Chained CPI factors in substitution, it grows at a slower pace than the CPI-W. The implication being that going with a Chained CPI will result in lower COLAs for retirees.
Which solution is best is really up to interpretation, but one thing is very clear: If Social Security is going to be fixed for the generations to come, someone is going to take a pay cut.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.