For tens of millions of retirees, there's no program in this country more vital than Social Security. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that the guarantee of a monthly payout from Social Security to most seniors has pushed the elderly poverty rate below 9%. Comparatively, the CBPP estimates that senior poverty rates would be approaching 41% without the aid of monthly Social Security income.
However, Social Security's importance hasn't necessarily translated into the program being on a solid foundation. A combination of factors that includes the ongoing retirement of baby boomers and increased longevity (especially for wealthy retirees) is expected to weigh on Social Security in the years to come. Should nothing be done by Congress to resolve an estimated $12.5 trillion budget shortfall over the next 75 years, current and future retirees could face a reduction in their benefits of up to 23%.
It's up to lawmakers on Capitol Hill to fix this mess, but they've been largely at odds with one another over how best to do it.
How best to fix Social Security?
When broken down to its simplest components, Congress could choose one of three pathways to bridge Social Security's funding shortfall:
- Raise revenue (increase the payroll tax, increase the maximum taxable earnings cap, or eliminate it entirely).
- Cut benefits (raise the full retirement age or freeze cost-of-living adjustments).
- Orchestrate some combination of the two.
In randomized national surveys, raising additional revenue tends to win out over the idea of cutting benefits pretty handily. An informal poll conducted by The Washington Post in 2014 that allowed online readers to choose between 12 options to fix Social Security (six to raise revenue and six to cut benefits) found that around 70% believed raising he maximum taxable earnings cap was the smartest solution. As of 2017, earned income below $127,200 is subject to Social Security's payroll tax, while earnings above this amount are exempt. Most folks would like that maximum earnings figure raised or removed altogether. In a distant second in this survey was the idea of raising the full retirement age, which would effectively reduce lifetime benefits for future retirees. It garnered close to 45% of respondents' support.
A separate poll from Gallup in the summer of 2015 found that 51% of respondents support raising taxes to generate more revenue, compared with just 37% who think curbing benefits for current or future generations is the smarter move. The remaining 12% had no opinion.
Yet if given the choice, it appears Congress favors curbing benefits for future generations.
A majority of U.S. Senators are OK with the idea of cutting Social Security benefits
One of the core components of the current tax reform plans that have passed through the GOP-controlled House and Senate is the idea of cutting spending. Since the Republican tax reforms are expected to add $1 trillion or more to the deficit over the next decade, cuts are needed to offset the reduced revenue from lower corporate and individual taxation.
Where are those funds going to come from? The Senate version included a repeal of the individual mandate, which would save the federal government more than $300 billion over the next 10 years. But this alone won't cover a trillion-dollar boost in the federal deficit. Some folks are wondering if the GOP might turn to cutting funding to so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare to save money. After all, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid combine to account for about half of the annual federal expenditures.
Just how likely are lawmakers on Capitol Hill to consider cutting Social Security benefits? During the Senate proceedings on Dec. 1 that led to the passage of the Senate's version of tax reform, an amendment (SA 1720) to the bill that would have created a point of order against legislation that cuts Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits was proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The proposal was soundly defeated by a vote of 46 to 54. In other words, 54% of U.S. Senators, including all 52 Republicans and two Democrats, believe that future "cuts" to Social Security are worth considering.
Subtle cuts aren't all bad news, but a balanced approach makes more sense
While more folks are likely opposed to cutting Social Security benefits than favor the idea, it's not all bad news, even if it sounds like it. For instance, reducing payouts for future generations of retirees should cover the funding shortfall facing Social Security, removing the need for cuts to current retirees.
It would probably also encourage better saving habits for today's working Americans, since retired worker benefits may not be as robust as their parents' or grandparents' generation. Encouraging people to save and invest more, as well as perhaps work a few years longer if they're healthy enough to do so, isn't a bad thing.
However, unilateral solutions (either cutting benefits or raising taxes) don't make as much sense as the idea of combining the two ideas together. If somehow the Democrats and Republicans in Washington could find common ground, a higher payroll tax rate accompanied with gradual adjustments to the full retirement age to account for increased longevity would probably make a lot of sense and put Social Security on a more solid long-term foundation. But considering that both parties have a solution that works, and political hubris runs deep, it could be a long time before an amicable solution to fix Social Security is reached.