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.

House Subcommittee Panel Makes Call for Expanding, Strengthening Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 23, 2019

So it goes, to the victor goes the spoils. Over a week ago, House Democratic leadership, now controlling the legislative agenda, pushed to strengthen and expand benefits for the nation’s Social Security program.

With the 116th Congress kicking off on Jan. 2, 2019, as the majority party, the Democrats took over the legislative reins of the House of Representatives from the Republicans, who had held the majority and legislative control of the lower chamber since 2011. Now being in power allows Democratic leadership to control which bills reach the floor for a vote. In this new Congress, legislation reflecting the GOP’s philosophy as to how to fix Social Security (by privatizing the retirement program, cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, even reducing cost-of-living adjustments or lowering earned benefits) would be blocked by Democratic leadership.

Congress Puts Spotlight on Social Security

Last week, Social Security got a full and fair hearing before the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.

Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairing the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, held a series of panel hearings, calling for the strengthening and protecting the nation’s Social Security program.

“What we’re addressing in these hearings is that Congress hasn’t paid enough attention to Social Security to make sure it’s actuarially sound,” he said, in his opening statement for the March 12th hearing, entitled “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Enhancing Social Security to Strengthen the Middle Class.”

According to Larson, more than 62 million Americans are already receiving Social Security benefits.

“We have a responsibility to act to strengthen this program for them,” he added. “Not to act will amount to a 25 percent benefit cut come 2034. In other words, for the person who was making $50,000 a year throughout their working career, they would actually be living at a poverty level in terms of a benefit that they would receive after these cuts,” he said.

“Not only do we need to work to protect the program, but we need a solution to make the program, as the actuaries say, “sustainably solvent,” or in other words, making sure Social Security remains strong throughout this century, not just for seniors, but for millennials too,” added Larson.

Joan Ruff, AARP’s chair of the Board, testified, saying, “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected, guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have. It is the foundation of retirement security that keeps millions of older Americans out of poverty and allows them to live independently. But Social Security also provides some measure of economic security for families who face a loss of income because of the disability or the death of a wage earner. We often do not think of Social Security as a family income protection plan—yet that is exactly what it is.”

Other witnesses testified on the importance of Social Security benefits and how it provides the middle class with economic security, especially women and minorities.

One day later, Larson convened a second hearing entitled, “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Benefit Enhancements.” The purpose of holding the hearings, said Larson, was to “shine a bright light on all of the proposals to secure Social Security that will help the American people.”

Democrats Unveil Fix for Social Security

Larson also used the subcommittee panel hearing as a bully pulpit to promote his legislation, H.R. 860, “The Social Security 2100 Act.” Specifically, the bill’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. Larson’s bill would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients would receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

At this time, H.R. 860 has 203 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin). Passage of the legislation requires only a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass.

But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it reach the Senate floor for consideration.

Larson’s first two hearings are the first in a series of hearings on Protecting and Improving Social Security. One more hearing will be scheduled with the date to be determined. After these hearings, H.R. 860 will most likely be marked up by the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and full Committee before it heads to the House floor for a vote.

Enhancing Social Security Benefits

Lead-off witness Max Richtman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), restated his aging advocacy group’s support for Larson’s Social Security bill, H.R. 860, which enhances the retirement programs benefits and ensures its long-term solvency.

“Since the program’s creation 84-years ago, Social Security has been – and is- and enormously successful program which is essential to the retirement of the vast majority of Americans. While [the] benefits are modest, Social Security is still the single largest source of income for retired American’s. To ensure the program’s continued success, it is vitally important that long-term solvency be restored, and that Social Security benefits be improved to meet the needs of all Americans,” says Richtman.

Social Security Advocates joined Richtman at the witness table, too.

Elizabeth Marafino, president of the Connecticut Alliance of Retired Americans (from Larson’s home state), stated that Social Security is important to older Connecticut residents, making this statement more personal by sharing how her maternal grandmother, mother of six and a widow at the age of fifty, was glad to receive her husband’s social security check because it literally kept her out of the poor house.

Marafino noted, “The traditional three-legged stool of pension, personal savings, and social security is deteriorating. The ‘pension’ leg of the stool has been disappearing, eroding retirement security and making Social Security even more important. Along with the high cost of prescription drugs putting pressure on seniors’ finances, (these factors make) the need to increase Social Security benefits urgent.”

Abigail Zapote, Director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement, testified that boosting Social Security benefits is crucial to the Latino population, whose average Social Security checks are lower than other Americans. “Latinos depend on Social Security more than other groups because they tend to have lower lifetime income, longer life expectancies, higher incidence of disability and larger families,” she said.

Enhancing benefits can help older women, too, testified Joan Entmacher, a Senior Fellow at the
National Academy of Social Insurance. “Social Security is the foundation of retirement security for most Americans, but it is especially important for women,” she says, noting that women rely more on their Social Security checks than men do, even though their Social Security benefits are lower. She pointed out that the average retirement benefit for women is only 80 percent of men, making women even more reliant on Social Security, she said.

“Adjusting the regular benefit formula to make it more progressive would increase benefits for all workers, but lower lifetime earners, including women and people of color, would receive the largest percentage increases,” says Entmacher. To boost retirement benefits, she calls for the creation of caregiver credits (the majority of caregivers are women) who take off from their jobs to care for family members.

Finally, Donna Butts, the Executive Director of Generations United, testified that Social Security was important for all generations. ““For more than 80 years Social Security has been the premier example of a policy designed to secure and insure the well-being of individuals and their families. “For many it makes the difference between putting food on the table and deciding whether grandma or junior eat tonight,” she says.

The Beginning of an Honest Policy Debate

According to a NCPSSM blog posted on March 15th, “Republicans on the subcommittee, now in the minority for the first time in 8 years, appeared to be less combative than in the past.”

“This was a richer dialogue about the philosophical differences about Social Security than we’ve had in a long time,” observed National Committee legislative director, Dan Adcock in the blog posting. “There was a quest to figure out what each side could live with,” he says.

Stay tuned.

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