Monday, June 15, 2015

What's Wrong with Social Security and Why it's Important to Gen X and the Millenniums- Part One

The Social Security Administration (SSA) in its 2014 report to Congress, projects the Trust Fund supporting the Social Security System will be insolvent by 2033. The SSA has provided reports like these for many years, with its 2010 report showing a projected date of insolvency of 2040. A 1983 report pointed to a date of 2058. By now, you can see where this is headed.

The Trust fund supporting Social Security is actually referred to as the OASDI fund, and covers both Social Security benefits and also payments under Disability Insurance. With a rapid escalation of disability claims over the past number of years, the disability portion of the Trust Fund is now projected to reach its point of insolvency next year (a date pulled in from 2018 in the 2010 report).

Both programs have seen rapid growth and accelerated outflows since 2008, explained, only in part by demographics and an aging population. Disability has grown dramatically, with roughly ten million people claiming benefits under the program. Its share of the adult population has doubled over the past twenty years, despite advances in medicine and a generally healthier population. Today, the Federal Government spends more on disability payments than on food stamps and welfare combined.

The growth in Social Security claims, as well, can only partially be explained by the aging baby boomer generation. Benefit claims following the financial crisis grew at a rate exceeding forecasts of the Social Security Administration based upon their demographic models. Despite the steep discount to future payments by taking early benefits, this trend has also now been underway for several years.

Many members of Generation X dismiss the whole notion that Social Security will be there for them in their retirement, or that a retirement as most know it, will even be available.  They often fault the baby boomers for the problem, citing over-spending and under-saving as contributing to the retirement crisis. While, in part, this may be true, the problems with Social Security are much more dramatically a problem of mathematics - or demographics, specifically.

In 1940, soon after Social Security began, there were roughly 35 million workers paying into Social Security and only 222,000 beneficiaries (or a ratio of workers to retirees of 159 to one). By 1950, that ratio had fallen to 16 to one, and by 1990, the ratio had declined to three to one. By 2031, it's projected that only two workers will pay into the system for each person collecting benefits.  

All of this, of course, had been forecast by the Social Security Administration many years earlier. But Congress, increasingly focused on their own needs and less and less on the job of actually running the country, largely chose to ignore it. Concerns about an aging population and its impact on Social Security emerged as far back as the early 1980s. Congress then acted to pass HR 1900, the Social Security Amendments of 1983 in an effort to shore up the system. Payroll taxes were raised and benefits, for the first time, became subject to taxation. While they were at it, Congress also thoughtfully moved to add benefit coverage under Social Security to members of Congress, the White House and other executive level appointments. 

But no sooner did surpluses materialize, then Congress found a way to spend the new found cash flow, by borrowing back surpluses of the Social Security Trust Fund, and swapping special issue Treasury Bonds in its place. In fact, this has been the practice for many years. In good years, when Social Security is recording a surplus, the extra cash is borrowed against Treasury bonds. In deficit years, as the Trust has seen for the last several, the shortfall is funded, once again, with Treasury bonds.

It's little wonder then, that the world's largest holder of US Treasury obligations is not China or Japan. It's not even the Federal Reserve. It's the Social Security system. And lest we forget, a Treasury bond is nothing more that a promise to pay from future tax revenue. What that means is that the government will need to raise tax revenue in the future to make good on its promise to pay some $2.8 trillion of obligations to the Social Security system, just for the program to remain on track for insolvency in 2033.