Social Security Trust Fund, Its History, Solvency, and How to Fix It
Will It Run Out?
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 and the Disability Insurance Trust Funds. In 2014, 60 million Americans received some Social Security benefit. Almost all, or 90 percent, of workers paid Social Security taxes.
Three Sources of Fund Income
Three sources of income fund Social Security. Workers contribute 85 percent through payroll taxes. Interest on the excess funds held by Treasury pays 11 percent. Current beneficiaries pay the remaining 3 percent.
How Congress Raids Social Security
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. It explains why the U.S. debt by president is larger than the U.S. deficit by president.
For this reason, the Heritage Foundations says 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."
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 $2.8 trillion in invested assets as of 2016.
It's also been because of tax hikes and adjustments to benefits. In 1977, the payroll tax rate was raised from 6.45 percent to 7.65 percent. 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 2016 was 1.813 percent. But the average rate for all Fund assets ($2.6 trillion) was higher, 3.154 percent, because the fund still holds bonds from past years when interest rates were higher.
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 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 percent, 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 fiscal cliff deal ended the 2 percent 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.
But it won't help with the long-term demographic changes mentioned earlier. The Fund's $2.9 trillion in assets could be depleted by 2038. At that time, the payroll tax income will cover 75 percent annual benefits.
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.