12 Ways to Fix Social Security

These tax increases and benefit cuts would eliminate Social Security’s deficit.

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The Social Security program faces a long term financing shortfall. The trust fund’s reserves are currently projected to cover payments until the end of 2037. Then there will only be sufficient resources to pay about three quarters of scheduled benefits. For full checks to be issued after that date the program’s financing or benefit structure must be modified.

A U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging report released today outlines the policies Congress could institute to eliminate Social Security’s projected deficit. Options include tax increases, benefit cuts, and program tweaks that could be implemented separately or in combination. “Many members of the Committee, including myself, do not support and actively oppose many of the options,” writes committee chairman Herb Kohl in the report. Here’s a look at the potential Social Security fixes.

Reduce benefits. If Social Security payouts were reduced by 3 percent for new beneficiaries beginning in 2010, about 18 percent of the funding shortfall would be eliminated. A 5 percent benefit cut would reduce the deficit by 30 percent. Alternatively, reductions could be more gradually phased in and exempt those with low lifetime earnings.

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Raise the retirement age. The Social Security eligibility age for unreduced retirement benefits currently ranges from 65 to 67 depending on the worker’s year of birth. If benefits are claimed between age 62 and the full retirement age, payouts are reduced. Proposals to push back the retirement age include accelerating the increase currently underway to age 67, further increasing the full retirement age to 68 or even 70, and indexing the full retirement age to keep up with longevity. Each of these switches, however, eliminates less than a third of the deficit.

Increase worker and employer contributions. Workers and their employers currently pay 6.2 percent of earnings up to $106,800 into the Social Security system, or a maximum of $6,622 each per year. Self-employed workers are required to pay 12.4 percent of pay up to the same cap. If the contribution rate were increased by 1.1 percent to 7.3 percent of earnings, Social Security’s projected deficit would be eliminated. Using this fix, a worker making $43,451 in 2010 would face a tax increase of $478 a year, or $9.19 a week, and the employer would face an identical increase.

Boost future contributions. Taxes don’t need to be increased immediately because there is currently enough money in the Social Security trust fund to pay out scheduled benefits. For example, the Social Security tax bite could be increased from 6.2 percent to 7.2 percent for workers and employers in 2022, and to 8.2 percent in 2052, which would also completely eliminate the shortfall. Alternatively, taxes could be gradually ramped up by 1/20 percent annually for 20 years, which would decrease the Social Security deficit by about 69 percent.

Tax as needed. Social Security contribution rates could be designed to increase as funds are needed and reduced when there is a surplus. Additionally, efforts to collect unpaid Social Security payroll taxes could be enhanced.

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Modify the Social Security tax cap. Workers pay into the Social Security system on earnings up to $106,800 in 2010. About 83 percent of worker earnings were subject to Social Security payroll taxes in 2008. If all earned income above $106,800 annually were subject to Social Security contributions but did not count toward benefits, Social Security’s projected deficit would be completely eliminated. If the higher income counted toward Social Security benefits, about 95 percent of the shortfall would be absolved. Other ideas: apply a new Social Security formula to earnings above the current cap or raise the amount of the income cap to apply to 90 percent of all worker earnings.

Average in more working years. Social Security checks are currently based on an average of a worker’s 35 highest paid years in the workforce. Those who haven’t worked 35 years have zeros averaged in. The averaging period could be increased to 38 or 40 years, which would reduce the deficit by 14 and 23 percent respectively.

Decrease the cost-of-living adjustment. Social Security benefits are currently automatically adjusted each year to keep up with inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. Reducing the cost-of-living adjustment by 1 percent each year would eliminate 78 percent of the deficit. Even knocking half a percent off the annual adjustment would reduce the deficit by 40 percent. An alternative way of measuring the cost-of-living could also be used.

Lower spousal benefits. Social Security pays a benefit to nonworking and low earning spouses equal to up to 50 percent of the higher earning spouse’s check. One proposal would gradually lower the maximum spousal benefit to 33 percent by 2026. This change would reduce about 6 percent of the long term deficit. However, this provision may have less of an impact over time as more women become entitled to Social Security benefits based on their own work records.

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Include more workers. Most Americans are already covered by the Social Security system. About 94 percent of workers pay employment or self-employment Social Security taxes. But some Americans are currently exempt from Social Security taxes including state and local government workers participating in alternative retirement systems, federal workers hired before 1984, college students working at academic institutions, and ministers who choose not to be covered. However, this fix would need to be applied in conjunction with others. Extending coverage to workers who previously didn’t participate would only reduce the Social Security shortfall by about 9 percent.

A legacy tax. The first retirees who received Social Security payments from the system didn’t pay Social Security taxes throughout their entire working life, which contributes to Social Security’s fiscal problems. Several ideas have been raised to counteract this legacy cost including a 3 percent legacy tax on earnings above the current tax cap of $106,800 or on adjusted gross income over $125,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. This legacy tax would eliminate close to a third of Social Security’s shortfall. Another proposed idea is directing estate tax revenue into the Social Security trust fund, which would eliminate 20 percent of the fund’s deficit.

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Diversify investments. Part of the Social Security trust fund could be invested in equities to try to earn returns that would help to sustain the Social Security program. Investing 15 percent of trust fund assets in equities would reduce the deficit by 14 percent if a 9.4 percent rate of return was achieved. If 40 percent of the trust fund were shifted into the stock market and earned 9.4 percent annually the deficit could be reduced by a third. Of course, this also exposes the trust fund to increased liabilities in times of economic downturn.