Report: Congress Warned to Shore Up Social Security Reserves

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 26, 2020

Each year, starting in 1941, the Social Security Board of Trustees has presented a required report on the financial status of the program to the Congress. Now amidst the world-wide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forcing the shuttering of the nation’s businesses triggering the worst economic downslide since the 1930s Great Depression, the Social Security Board of Trustees releases its 276-page 2020 annual with a warning that Social Security could deplete its trust funds reserves by 2035, if Congress does not act to increase the trust fund reserves. However, because of payroll taxes, revenue to the program would ensure that at least 79 percent of benefits would be paid after 2035 if Congress fails to address solvency.

During the last five weeks, about 24 million Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 Pandemic. With fewer people paying payroll taxes, this will further reduce revenue to Social Security, the impact depending upon how length and severity of the economic downturn. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who pass away, become disabled or survivors will also affect the actuarial accounting of the trust fund’s finances.

“The projections in this year’s report do not reflect the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program. Given the uncertainty associated with these impacts, the Trustees believe it is not possible to adjust estimates accurately at this time,” said Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security. “The duration and severity of the pandemic will affect the estimates presented in this year’s report and the financial status of the program, particularly in the short term.” says Saul.

“Today’s report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near term, but it will not have enough to pay 100 percent of promised benefits in long term. The report underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent a 21 percent cut from occurring in 2035, by ensuring Social Security is fully funded and strengthened for today’s seniors and future generations, who will need it even more,” said Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee in a statement.

“As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security’s role is even more important than ever. During this volatile time of economic uncertainty, Social Security remains the one constant that all current and future beneficiaries can count on. It has never missed a payment. That’s why we must act now to expand and enhance Social Security with the Social Security 2100 Act,” states Larson. “His legislation will ensure Social Security remains solvent for the next 75 plus years, while expanding benefits. Moreover, the expansion of Social Security’s steady monthly payments would be an automatic boost to the economy,” he adds.

Gauging the Financial Health of Social Security

According to the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), at the end of 2019, about 64 million people were receiving benefits: 48.2 million retired workers and their dependents; 6 million survivors of deceased workers; and 9.9 million disabled workers and their dependents. About 178 million workers had earnings covered by Social Security and paid payroll taxes in 2019.

By 2035, (which is the same as last year’s estimate) when today’s 51-year-olds reach the retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 78, retirees will face a 21-percent across-the board benefits cut (that could grow to 25 percent over time) if Congress does not make significant changes to revenue, benefits, or both to shore up the depleted trust fund.

This year’s report announces that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of approximately $2.9 trillion. It projects that, even if Congress took no action whatsoever, Social Security not only can pay all benefits and associated administrative costs until 2035, it is 91 percent funded for the next quarter century, 85 percent for the next half century, and 82 percent for the next three quarters of a century. At the end of the century, in 2095, Social Security is projected to cost just 5.86 percent of gross domestic product.

The newly released Trustees report notes that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2065, 13 years later than in last year’s report. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing tax income will be sufficient to pay 92 percent of scheduled benefits.

As to the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, which pays Medicare Part A inpatient hospital expenses, the Trustee’s report says that this program will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2026, the same as reported last year. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing total program income will be sufficient to pay 90 percent of total scheduled benefits.

Finally, the Trustee’s report noted that the Supplemental Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund, consisting of Part B, which pays for physician and outpatient services, and Part D, which covers prescription drug benefits, is adequately financed into the indefinite future because current law provides financing from general revenues and beneficiary premiums each year to meet the next year’s expected costs. Due to these funding provisions, the rapid growth of SMI costs will place steadily increasing demands on both taxpayers and beneficiaries, says the Trustee’s report.

Social Security Advocates Weigh in

“Medicare and Social Security are more crucial than ever as Americans face the one-two punch of the coronavirus’s health and economic consequences, says AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in a statement following the release of the Trustees report, noting that the security provided by Social Security’s guaranteed benefits and Medicare’s health coverage is indispensable.

“Today’s reports show that both programs remain strong. However, it is crucial for Congress to come together in a bipartisan way to address the long-term funding challenges to ensure individuals will get the benefits they have earned. One way to protect Medicare is to lower the cost of health care and prescription drug prices, suggests Jenkins.

“Social Security is strong. But its long-term fiscal health cannot be guaranteed if the White House and Congress continue to use the program’s financing structure for economic stimulus during the COVID-19 crisis,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “Those who would like to dismantle Social Security are using the pandemic to launch a stealth attack. A broad-based payroll tax cut, as the President has proposed, would interfere with Social Security’s traditional revenue stream while failing to deliver effective or equitable stimulus,” he warns.

According to Richtman, Social Security already provides more than $1.6 trillion in annual economic stimulus as seniors spend their benefits for essential goods and services in their communities. “Now is not the time – in fact, it is never the time – to tamper with a program that more than 40% of retirees rely upon for all of their income,” he says.

Richtman notes that the Trustees estimate that the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2021 will be 2.3 percent. However, that projection does not reflect the impact of the pandemic on inflation, and the actual COLA for next year could be lower, he says.

“We do not know the extent of the pandemic’s impact on Social Security, but we do know that seniors need a boost in their benefits. Let’s strengthen the program now by eliminating the payroll tax wage cap and demanding the wealthy pay their fair share. That way, we can expand benefits and adopt a more accurate cost-of-living inflation formula for seniors,” suggests Richtman.

As for Medicare, says Richtman, the program’s financial future is relatively unchanged from last year’s report, but the impact of the pandemic is not reflected. “The Medicare Part A Trust Fund will become exhausted by 2026, after which the program still could pay 90 percent of benefits, if Congress does nothing to strengthen Medicare’s finances,” he adds.

Adds Richtman, the Trustees estimate that the Medicare Part B premium will rise to $153.30 per month in 2021, an $8.70 increase over last years.

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and the Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Jenkins and Richtman that the Trustee’s report shows Social Security will remain strong through the rest of the 21st century and beyond, notwithstanding current circumstances. “Though the exact impact of today’s pandemic and economic conditions will not be clear until next year’s report, Social Security’s strength will shine through next year, as well. Social Security is built to withstand today’s events,” says Altman.

Altman believes that Social Security is a solution and the program continues to pay benefits automatically on time, especially with retiree’s 401(k)s taking a hit because of the pandemic crisis. “It is past time to increase Social Security’s modest but vital benefits, while requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share,” she says.

Stimulating the Economy by Slashing Payroll Taxes

Congress has passed payroll tax cuts –in 2011 and 2012 – in an attempt to stimulate the economy during a downturn. The recently enacted $2.2 trillion economic stimulus legislation passed last month, called the CARES Act, does allow for employers to defer their payroll tax payments but does not actually cut the levies, which are used to fund Medicare and Social Security.

Now GOP lawmakers led by President Donald Trump are using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay.

Using a payroll tax cut to provide a financial stimulus in an effort to forestall a recession caused by COVID-19 pandemic “undermines the earned benefit nature of the program,” warns Dan Adcock, NCPSSM’s Director of Government Relations & Policy.

“Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives. A payroll tax cut suspension or deferral chips away at that fundamental idea, making it easier each time it is enacted to turn to it again to meet some future crisis, until the payroll tax is not just cut but is eliminated, undermining the program in this manner would help achieve the goals of opponents of Social Security including those who would privatize the program,” says Adcock.

Adcock says that NCPSSM opposes a Congressional effort to alter the payroll tax that reduces revenue flowing into the Social Security trust fund or undermines the “earned right” nature of the benefit. “We support the enactment of tax incentives – other than cutting, suspending or deferring the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes – to encourage employers to keep their workers during this emergency,” he says.

Congressional lawmakers can extend the long-term solvency of the Social Security while improving earned benefits through passing legislation like Congressman John Larson’s H.R. 860, the Social Security 2100 Act, says Adcock. At press time, the House bill has over 208 cosponsors and its Social Security Subcommittee has held several hearings on the bill.

Several other bills to protect and expand Social Security benefits have also been introduced in both House and Senate chambers The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, former Vice President Joe Biden, has endorsed a Senate proposal sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would provide all Social Security beneficiaries with an extra $200/month during the coronavirus health crisis.

As to Medicare, lawmakers can take action to cut beneficiaries’ out of pocket costs and boost Medicare’s fiscal health by passing H.R. 3, The Lower Drug Costs Now Act — which would save the program some $400 billion in projected prescription drug costs by allowing the government to negotiate prices directly with Big Pharma.

Simply put, one sure method of ensuring the financial viability of Social Security is to require millionaires to pay their fair share of payroll taxes by removing or increasing the current income cap on payroll taxes, suggests Adcock.

Shoreing Up Social Security

With over 90 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential elections, seniors might reach out to those running for Congress and the White House and call for the strengthening and expansion of Social Security. It’s time to protect the viability of the program for those currently receiving benefits and for the younger generations who follow.

View the 2020 Trustees Report at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TR/2020/.

View an infographic about the program’s long-term financial outlook at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/policy/social-security-long-term-financial-outlook.html

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Is it Really a Happy Birthday for Social Security?

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 23, 2015

With the stroke of his pen, over 80 years ago, on August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.  Over the last eight decades, this domestic program has become one of the most popular federal programs, paying $848 billion to 59 million beneficiaries at the end of calendar year 2014.  During that year, an estimated 166 million people had earnings covered by Social Security and paid taxes.

Celebrating the 80th birthday of Social Security over two weeks ago, AARP released the results of its anniversary survey.  The August 2015 survey followed earlier surveys conducted during previous milestone anniversaries in 1995 (60th), 2005 (70th) and 2010 (75th).  The latest 29 page report found that Americans of all ages continue to have strong feelings of support for Social Security, and this latest survey found several key themes.

According to the national survey of adults detailed in “Social Security 80th Anniversary Survey Report: Public Opinion Trends,” Social Security remains a core part of retirement security, it also remains popular across the generations and political ideologies.

“As we celebrate Social Security on its 80th anniversary, our survey found that it remains as important as ever to American families,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins. “We also found that although most want to continue living independently as we age, obstacles to saving often continue to occur in our lives. However, Social Security continues to help generation after generation to diminish these obstacles.”

“When it comes to how important Social Security is to Rhode Islanders, the numbers speak for themselves,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “210,975 is the number of Social Security beneficiaries in the state; 23.7% say that Social Security provides 90% or more of their total income. And about half say that Social Security represents 50% or more of their income. Without Social Security, many retirees would be living below the poverty line.

“It is plain to see that protecting this key earned benefit is critical. A recent AARP survey found 68% of respondents express at least some concern that they won’t have enough savings to last their lifetime. Imagine if they are given reason to worry more about the viability of Social Security. People who are working toward retirement need to make themselves heard and – as we approach the 2016 elections – hold politicians to their promises to protect Social Security.”

Social Security Key to Surviving Old Age

            Older American’s look to rely on their Social Security checks to pay bills, say the researchers.  Four in five adults (80%) rely or plan to rely on Social Security benefits in a substantial way.  Survey respondents (33%) say that Social Security is the source of income that they rely on or plan to rely on most during their retirement years.

The study finding’s reveal that Social Security has broad support, even across political ideologies and America’s generations, too.  Sixty six percent believe that this domestic program is one of the most important government programs when compared to others. This view has remained consistent over time in similar AARP anniversary surveys taken in 1995, 2005, and 2010.  According to the study, the vast majority of Americans (82%) also believe it’s important to contribute to Social Security for the “common good.”

Like aging baby boomer and seniors, even younger Americans value this program. Specifically, nine in ten adults under 30 (90%) believe Social Security is an important government program, and nearly nine in ten (85%) want to know it will be there for them when they retire.

The survey respondents also want to live independently in their communities at home. The findings indicate that four out of five adults (83%) consider it extremely important to have the ability to stay at home as long as they want; although 64% believe they won’t be able to do so as they age and become frail. Additionally, while 68% feel it extremely important to have family around, 80% want to be able to financially take care of themselves so their children and other relatives won’t have to support them financially.

While recognizing the importance of financial planning, survey respondents say they face a multitude of challenges that keep them from effectively putting away money for their retirement.  Specifically, 69% note that they must focus their income on current financial needs, while 47% believe they do not have enough money left over to put into their retirement savings after paying their monthly bills.  Survey respondents (39%) says health issues and family problems keep them from saving for retirement.

SS Trustee Report Gives Nation a Warning

The six member Social Security Board of Trustees issued its 2015 report, on July 22, giving the nation a snapshot of the fiscal health of the nation’s retirement and disability program.

Within the 257 page report, the Trustees gave a dire warning to Congress.  “Taken in combination, Social Security’s retirement and disability programs have dedicated resources sufficient to cover benefits for nearly two decades, until 2034.  However, the projected depletion date for the separate Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund is only a little more than one year away, in late 2016,” says the widely anticipated federal report.  “After the DI trust fund exhaustion, annual revenues from the program’s dedicated payroll and taxation of Social Security benefits will be sufficient to fund about three-quarters of scheduled benefits through 2089.”

According to the Social Security Administration, there were about 10.4 million Americans who received benefits from the DI Trust Fund in 2014, including roughly 42,429 in the Ocean State.  In order to qualify, these beneficiaries are required to have worked in a job covered by Social Security, and must have been unable to work for a year or more due to a disability. If Congress fails to act to direct more funding into the DI trust fund, disabled workers throughout the nation and in Rhode Island will be hit hard financially right in their wallets.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins offered her observation about the released Social Security Trustees report. “While the Trustees once again report that the combined Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance Trust can pay full retirement, survivor and disability benefits for approximately two more decades, we know that if no action is taken, benefits will be cut by nearly 25% in 2034.  As the campaign season gets underway, we will be urging all Presidential candidates to share their plans for the long term solvency and adequacy of Social Security.”

Democrats are calling for an easy fix to shoring up the DI Trust Fund, specifically shifting a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax from the retirement fund to the disability trust fund.  This has occurred 11 times in the past with bipartisan support.  But, with the 2016 presidential elections now catching the attention of politicos, GOP Senators have threatened to block any transfer of funds, charging that following this strategy is just a way to push the political “hot potato” issue down the road.  Political observers say that this year’s Republican opposition to quickly fixing the DI Trust Fund is a way to force Democrats to the negotiation table to get concessions on higher Social Security payroll taxes or to cut program benefits.

Now, it’s time for Congress to pull together to fix the ailing Social Security program to ensure its future solvency and to adequate fund the DI Trust Fund.  Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must stop their political bickering and craft a compromise to keep Social Security’s retirement and disability trust funds well-funded and up and running for years to come.  For the sake of older Americans who now rely on their meager Social Security benefits to survive, our elected federal elected officials must begin to act like Statesmen not simple-minded politicians.  Hopefully, the voters will push for this change in thinking when they go into the polls in 2016.