Social Security: The Long Slow Default
When an investor buys an annuity or another retirement product from an insurance or mutual fund company, the contract is constant and enforceable through the United States court system. When a United States taxpayer is forced to pay for a government backed retirement system such as the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program (OASDI) — also known as Social Security — the “contract” can be, and is, changed on a regular basis by the United States government, and those changes are generally not to the benefit of the taxpayer.
Participation in the Social Security system became compulsory in 1935 and the first monthly retirement checks were issued in 1940. The first monthly check was issued to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont. She had paid approximately $25 into the Social Security system and received over $22,000 in benefits from the system due to living to 100 years of age. The other early retirees of the Social Security system on average also did very well. Retirees in 1977 are estimated to have received seven times what they paid into the Social Security system. Retirees entering the program as recipients today will probably receive a negative return on their “investment.”
The “Primary Insurance Amount”
The way that Social Security benefits are calculated is complicated, and can, of course, be modified at any time.
The amount of monthly income a Social Security enrollee receives is called the Primary Insurance Amount. The current Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) benefit formula was created in 1979 and is based on two “bend points.”
For an individual who first becomes eligible for old-age insurance benefits or disability insurance benefits in 2015, his PIA will be the sum of:
(a) 90 percent of the first $826 of his average indexed monthly earnings (AIME), plus,
(b) 32 percent of his average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) over $826 and through $4,980, plus,
(c) 15 percent of his average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) over $4,980,
where the Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME) is currently the average of the Social Security recipients top thirty-five years of income during his lifetime divided by 12.
Significantly, each year’s monthly income is expressed in 2015 dollars using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Benefit Cuts Since the 1970s
By the late 1970s, it became obvious that the Social Security system was going to have significant solvency problems since the ratio of workers to retirees decreased from around 40-to-1 in 1945 to around 3-to-1 in 1980, and most of the money paid into the system had been spent on other government programs.
Payroll taxes were therefore increased, and a series of changes were made to the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) payment formula to cut the benefits that Social Security enrollees would receive.
The PIA formula before 1979 was even more complicated than the one used in 2015. It had ten bend points, but gave more credit to high income workers. According to Robert J. Myers in his book Social Security, the changes in the benefit formula in 1979 resulted in, on average, a 7 percent reduction in monthly Social Security payments for new retirees. Under that current benefit formula, if a Social Security enrollee has a life-time income over $2 million, he will very likely have a negative return on his investment. For lifetime incomes between $0.5 million and $2 million, the enrollee has a chance to break even. Enrollees with a lifetime income less than $0.5 million have a good chance of still benefiting from the Social Security system. The number of years included in the earnings base (the number of years of income averaged to determine the monthly benefit payment) was gradually increased from twenty-three years, for people born in 1917, to twenty-nine years for people born in 1923 to thirty-five years, for people retiring in 2015.
For mothers who took time off from their career, people who spent a long time in graduate school, and people whose income was much larger during later parts of their life, this resulted in a significant decrease in benefits. (See The Social Security Book by Jack and Erwin Gaumnitz.)
Using the CPI to Keep Payments Down
Since the 1970s, the AIME used to determine the PIA has been indexed using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). So the higher the CPI, the larger a recipient’s monthly Social Security benefits will be. Social Security benefits for current retirees are also increased annually by the CPI. This means that one way the government can lower benefit payments is by under-estimating the inflation rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has redefined how the CPI is calculated several times since the 1980s, lowering the CPI in each case. According to economists at Shadow Government Statistics, the CPI currently underestimates the inflation rate by at least 4 percent per year. If this is the case, Social Security recipients receive a 4 percent reduction in their buying power each year.
“Mini-Defaults” in the Social Security System
The US government knows it cannot keep up its end of the original Social Security bargain. So, to address its insolvency issue, the federal government simply responds by reducing benefits while increasing taxes. Increasing the retirement age, for example, is an easy way to reduce benefits.
The retirement age was increased from sixty-five for those born in 1937 or before to sixty-seven for those born in 1960 or after. Since enrollees do not get maximum benefits until age seventy, it could be argued that seventy is really the current full retirement age.
The taxable earnings base (the maximum income that is subject to Social Security taxes) and Social Security tax rates have increased drastically since the system was first created. The taxable earnings base was $3,000 in 1937, $25,900 in 1980, and $118,500 in 2015. The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) tax was 2 percent in 1937, 9.04 percent in 1980, and 10.98 percent in 2015. This number includes both the employer and employee portion. When the 1.42 percent Disability Insurance tax and the 2.9 percent Medicare tax is added, the total payroll tax is currently 15.3 percent.
In 1983, legislation was passed to tax Social Security benefits for the first time. Currently, if a taxpayer’s provisional income is more than $25,000 on a single return or $32,000 on a joint return, their Social Security benefits will be taxed at between 50 percent and 85 percent of their normal tax rate.
Further Tax Increases and Benefits Cuts are Likely in the Near Future
According to the Social Security Administration, by 2033 future payroll taxes will only cover around 77 percent of estimated benefits. It is therefore likely that even further benefit cuts and tax increases will occur in the near future. Increasing Social Security tax rates from 12.4 percent to 15.5 percent and eliminating the taxable maximum (i.e., making all income subject to Social Security taxes) is currently being considered. Other tax increases being proposed include taxing contributions to flexible spending accounts and creating a national Value Added Tax (VAT).
Further cuts to Social Security benefits are also on the table. Proposals to cut benefits include increasing the retirement age from sixty-seven to seventy years, increasing the number of years included in the earnings base from thirty-give to thirty-eight or forty, and increasing the percentage of Social Security benefits that are subject to income taxes. Redefining the CPI index to further underestimate the inflation rate is also on the table.
Social Security has long been sold to the public on the notion that what a worker will receive back is what he or she pays into the system. For decades, however, the government has been changing the terms of this “agreement” as part of an effort to avoid outright default. This long, slow method of piecemeal default, however, is likely to continue.