Social Security's Wheel of Fortune

The nation's retirement safety net is wearing thin. Is your check safe?

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Even as 401(k)'s tanked, home prices plummeted, and jobs vanished, more than 50 million Americans went to sleep last year assured that at least one of their assets would still be there in the morning: their Social Security check. No matter how precipitously the stock market fell, those monthly benefits—which averaged $1,155 for retired workers—always turned up. "Social Security is really the gold standard of retirement benefits," says Nancy Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security: From FDR's Vision to Bush's Gamble. Although it might not have been apparent to recipients, the worst recession since the Second World War has trimmed Social Security's finances. And as millions more Americans become eligible, future and current beneficiaries are left wondering: Just how safe is my Social Security check?

[See how much taking Social Security too soon could cost you.]

America's safety net has been projecting long-term deficits for years, and it's no secret that legions of retiring baby boomers will one day exhaust Social Security's financial surplus. But the ongoing recession has exacerbated this trend. Payroll tax receipts—the program's key source of revenue—declined considerably during the economic slump, putting a chokehold on Social Security's funding. As a result, the system's break-even date—when Social Security begins paying out more in benefits than it takes in through payroll tax revenue—has been moved forward by one year, to 2016, in the most recent Social Security trustees report. What's more, the still-sputtering economy may bump the date forward again in next year's report. The system will make up this shortfall by dipping into its $2.4 trillion trust fund. (The fund, however, is held in government bonds, not cash. Redeeming the securities may require federal tax increases or spending cuts.) After the trust fund is exhausted, which, according to projections, will happen in 2037, Social Security will be able to pay out about three quarters of its promised benefits through 2083.

Although this prognosis may appear alarming, Virginia Reno of the nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance insists that Social Security's books aren't cause for panic. "There absolutely is no crisis," she says. "There is a shortfall in the long-term finances." For a genuine Social Security crisis, Reno points to 1983, when the system's finances were so depleted that benefits would have had to have been reduced or delayed within months had Congress not acted.

Still, it's clear that Social Security's finances need attention, and the longer reform is put off, the more intrusive the repairs that will need to be made down the road. "If you hear something wrong in your transmission and you fix it immediately, it may be expensive, but it is a heck of a lot cheaper than when gears start to fly out the back of the car," says David John of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "We are at the point right now where the gears aren't flying off, but they are getting close." There's nothing simple about reforming Social Security; neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton could get it done. That's because Social Security beneficiaries are a large, politically engaged block of voters who aren't crazy about the two main avenues for bringing the system into actuarial balance: cutting benefits or raising taxes.

[Also see 6 Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Payout.]

With the Obama administration consumed with the rickety economy and its ambitious healthcare overhaul, the White House is unlikely to take on Social Security reform anytime soon. But Andrew Biggs, a former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, expects President Obama to try and tackle reform later in his term. "It's a big issue, but it's relatively fixable in the sense that it is much more of a mature policy issue than something like healthcare," says Biggs, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "We know the pros and cons. We just have to make our decisions." Hammering out a package will pit conservatives, who are more sympathetic to benefit cuts, against liberal lawmakers, who are more willing to swallow tax increases. "In all likelihood, it will end up being a mix of some benefit reductions and some increases in the taxation," says Douglas Elliott of the liberal Brookings Institution.