Five years ago, when President Bush made his pitch to reform Social Security, the program was projected to start running annual deficits in 2018.
But in its yearly report released today, the Social Security Trustees have projected that due to the weak economy, the program will be paying out more benefits than it collects in taxes in both 2010 and 2011. Anticipating that the economy will recover, the trustees project that program will return to surpluses for a few years, but then, starting in 2015, it will begin consistently running deficits every year.
Defenders of the status quo in Social Security argue that the program is perfectly fine until its trust fund becomes exhausted, which is now projected to happen in 2037. But as I’ve noted before, to draw such a distinction is to pretend that all of the money doesn’t ultimately come from the same bank account (or in this case, the collective bank accounts of American taxpayers).
The Social Security program is financed primarily by payroll taxes. When the amount of tax revenue collected exceeds benefits, the surplus is theoretically put in the trust fund. But in reality, the federal government uses that surplus to finance ongoing government operations, and puts a stack of bonds — or IOUs — in the funds instead. So, while it’s true that for about 27 years, there’s theoretically enough money within the system to keep paying beneficiaries, over the next two years and then consistently after 2015, that money will have to come from somewhere — at a time when the nation is already suffocating under a mountain of debt.
To make the program actuarially solvent over a 75-year period, the trustees note, “the combined payroll tax rate could be increased during the period in a manner equivalent to an immediate and permanent increase of 1.84 percentage points, scheduled benefits could be reduced during the period in a manner equivalent to an immediate and permanent reduction of 12.0 percent, general revenue transfers equivalent to $5.4 trillion in present value could be made during the period, or some combination of approaches could be adopted. Significantly larger changes would be required to maintain solvency beyond 75 years.”