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Trump's Payroll Tax Holiday Reveals a Hard Truth About Social Security

By Dan Caplinger – Sep 24, 2020 at 6:02AM

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Most Americans are mistaken about a key aspect of their benefits.

Social Security is one of the most important government programs for Americans. Tens of millions of people count on the benefits that Social Security provides right now, and hundreds of millions more expect Social Security to be there when they need it.

Yet Social Security has been in trouble for some time, and there's growing worry that policies from President Trump could hasten a looming financial crisis for the government program. In particular, Trump's decision to defer collection of Social Security payroll taxes has many concerned that the key source of funding for the program could dry up. That would potentially take what has been a 10 to 15 year time frame for fixing Social Security's financial woes and turn it into an immediate emergency.

From a different perspective, however, the payroll tax move doesn't really change anything. The hard truth is that there's never been any guarantee that anyone will receive future Social Security benefits. Despite the thousands of dollars in payroll taxes most American workers pay into the system every year, there's no vested property right in Social Security benefits. All it would take is getting a bill through Congress and a stroke of the pen in the White House, and Social Security would be history.

Social Security card folded into a money roll.

Image source: Getty Images.

The biggest misimpression about Social Security benefits

As you read this, you might be shaking your head, thinking this isn't possible. After all, you've paid Social Security payroll taxes throughout your career. You've suffered the indignity of having that money taken out of your paycheck week after week, month after month, year after year.

It's not as though you had a choice about paying those taxes. But you might have told yourself that at least you were earning some valuable retirement benefits in exchange for the money you were giving up.

The Social Security Administration itself contributes to this misunderstanding. The formulas that govern benefits point to a worker's 35-year career earnings, tying the amount of monthly checks you'll receive in retirement to your earnings. Moreover, your Social Security statement includes not only your anticipated benefit amounts, but also the total amount of payroll taxes you've paid into the system.

All of that suggests that once you've worked your job and paid your payroll taxes, you're automatically entitled to receive benefits when you retire. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

What the government gives, the government can take away

The Supreme Court weighed in on this issue way back in the 1960s. Under a revision to the Social Security Act, one person had his Social Security benefits taken away from him because he had been deported for being a member of the Communist Party. The Supreme Court dismissed the argument that recipients had a vested property right in Social Security benefits, instead affirming Congressional authority to take away current and future benefits.

With respect to past temporary Social Security payroll tax reductions, the federal government has previously made up the difference by transferring money from the general fund to the Social Security trust funds. Yet that, too, was a choice the government made. Had it not done so, then the trust funds would've simply had less revenue to use toward future benefits.

Don't take your Social Security for granted

It's because of this hard truth that Americans who want to receive Social Security benefits have to be prepared to fight for them. Constant vigilance is necessary, because the rules can change at any time.

Whether you're receiving benefits now or have decades to go before you expect to collect Social Security, it's important to make sure your voice is heard whenever Congress or the White House make proposals that would potentially affect what you get from the program now or in the future.

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