Social Security Trust Fund: History, Solvency, How to Fix It

Will It Run Out?

Protestors against cuts in Social Security
Demonstrators shout slogans and hold posters as they protest against U.S. President George W. Bush's plans on reforming the Social Security System outside the Capital Hilton Hotel June 8, 2005 in Washington, DC.. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Imagess

Definition: The Social Security Trust Fund is America's retirement fund. It also disburses benefits for the blind and disabled. The names of the two funds are the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Funds.In 2014, 60 million Americans received some Social Security benefit. Nearly all (90%) of workers paid Social Security taxes.

The U.S. Treasury Department manages the Trust Fund under the direction of a six-member Board.

Each July, the Board reports to Congress on the financial and actuarial status of the trust funds. (Source: A Summary of the 2015 Annual Social Security and Medicare Trust Fund Reports)

Who Contributes Money to the Fund?

Three sources of income fund Social Security. Workers contribute 85% through payroll taxes. Interest on the excess funds held by Treasury pays 11%. Current beneficiaries pay the remaining 3%.

Is Social Security Being Raided?

The U.S. Treasury must invest Social Security income in "securities guaranteed as to both principal and interest by the Federal government." The Treasury issues these special interest securities lie it does U.S. Treasury bonds. There are three differences. They are not tradeable, they are only available to the trust funds, and they are only bought with payroll taxes. The Treasury redeems these bonds, with interest, to pay for benefits. The money to redeem the bonds comes from the General Fund.

After that, the payroll taxes go into the General Fund, where they pay for government expenditures. That's how Presidents "borrow" money from the Social Security Trust Fund. The borrowed funds make their deficits look smaller. The real amount owed still shows up in the debt. For more, compare U.S. Debt by President to U.S. Deficit by President.

For this reason, some critics say the "special issue" securities are "nothing more than IOUs." That's because future benefits will have to come from "taxes that are being used today to pay for other government programs." (Source: Heritage Foundation, Misleading the Public.)

History and Creation of Surplus

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act . It created a program to pay an income to retired workers (65 or older). The funds for Social Security came from payroll taxes, known as FICA. The Social Security Trust Fund was established in 1937 to manage the income collected from these taxes so they could be redistributed as Social Security Income. 

Since then, the Trust Fund has received more in income than it's paid out in benefits. That's because of America's demographics. Until recently, there were 2.9 workers for every beneficiary. More money has gone into the fund via payroll taxes than has gone out as benefits. Thanks to those decades of surplus income, the Fund had $2.7 trillion in invested assets as of 2014.

(Source: 2015 Annual Report, Table 1)

It's also been because of tax hikes and adjustments to benefits. In 1977, the payroll tax rate was raised from 6.45% to 7.65%. The Trust Fund has held a surplus since then. (Source: Social Security History)

The Fund also receives interest income from its investments in "special issue" securities. The rate of return is determined by a formula enacted in 1960, and it changes each month. The average rate for each month in 2014 was 2.271%. However, the average rate for all Fund assets ($2.6 trillion) was higher, 3.358%, because the fund still holds bonds from past years when interest rates were higher.(Source: Social Security Administration, Fund FAQ)

Solvency

For years, the Board of Trustees warned that the demographic changes that created the surplus would also lead to the Fund's demise. As the post-WWII Baby Boomers turn 65, leaving the workforce to retire, there will be fewer workers supporting more retirees. The financial crisis of 2008 has only hastened this trend. Higher unemployment means even lower payroll tax income.

In 2010, the Obama tax cuts, reduced the OASDI payroll taxes by 2%, while extending the Bush tax cuts. In fact, that was the first year that Social Security income was not enough to cover benefits. The fund only received $637 billion from payroll taxes but paid out $702 billion in benefits. However, its other income, from investments and taxes on the benefits, more than covered its costs. Nevertheless, the Trust Fund took out $2 billion from the General Fund.

In 2011, the situation worsened. The Fund's total costs were $736.1 billion, including $725 directly paid in benefits. However, its income from taxes and investments was only $702.4 billion. The Fund required $102.1 billion from the General Fund, making it the first year the Fund contributed to the budget deficit. The 2013 fiscal cliff deal ended the 2% payroll tax holiday.  The Obamacare Taxes on high-income households also began in 2013. That increased revenue to the Fund, and improved its cash flow shortfall. (Source: Social Security Administration, Operation of the Combined OASDI Fund, Table VI.A.3)

But it won't help with the long-term demographic changes mentioned earlier. The Fund's $2.7 trillion in assets will be depleted by 2035. At that time, the payroll tax income will cover 75% annual benefits.  (Source: SocialSecurityOnline, Trust Fund FAQ)

Fixing Social Security

Different proposals are being developed to restore solvency. They require either a decrease in benefits paid, an increase in taxes or an increase in debt. Since the debt is already unsustainable, policy makers must choose between the remaining two, unpopular evils. As a result, no real changes to restore the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund have been implemented. 

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