In a post-mortem of the Social Security Trust Fund report released Thursday, the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted a webinar featuring speaker Steve Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration. Goss looked beyond the headlines stating that the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance will run out in 2034 (a slight improvement from last year’s forecasted demise of 2033) and that the Disability Insurance fund is now solvent for another 75 years.
“We’re in a little better shape [than 2021] because the economy has come roaring back to such a wonderful extent,” Goss said.
He also pointed out that labor demand has had a “remarkable rebound.” For example, it took 10 years for the job market to come back after the 2008 Great Recession. However, the 2020 recession, which was “very deep and very abrupt,” has also reversed just as quickly and in the first quarter of 2022, “we are virtually back to the high level that we had just before the start of the recession.”
The annual Social Security trustees report is once again upon us, and this year it actually bears some good news: The projections give us an extra year before the trust fund is exhausted in 2035.
At least, this sounded like good news when I first heard it. Then I remembered that I have been writing about these trustees reports for more than 15 years. When I started, all these projections sounded comfortably far off — we had decades to fix the problem! Now we have 13 years. And in all that time, we have done nothing at all, except watch the date of insolvency advance.
In 2008, it was 2040, and the people likely to be worst affected — those who would be eligible to retire just as the trust fund was exhausted — were 35. Now, the people facing the most disruption are 54, much closer to retirement than to their college graduation.
In the meantime, the politics of fixing America’s old-age entitlements has gotten considerably worse.
• The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund, which pays retirement and survivors benefits, will be able to pay scheduled benefits on a timely basis until 2034, one year later than reported last year. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing tax income will be sufficient to pay 77 percent of scheduled benefits.
• The Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, is no longer projected to be depleted within the 75-year projection period. By comparison, last year’s report projected that it would be able to pay scheduled benefits only until 2057.
• The OASI and DI funds are separate entities under law. The report also presents information that combines the reserves of these two funds in order to illustrate the actuarial status of the Social Security program as a whole. The hypothetical combined OASI and DI funds would be able to pay scheduled benefits on a timely basis until 2035, one year later than reported last year. At that time, the combined funds’ reserves will become depleted and continuing tax income will be sufficient to pay 80 percent of scheduled benefits.
• The Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, or Medicare Part A, which helps pay for services such as inpatient hospital care, will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2028, two years later than 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.
• The Supplemental Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund 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 and the rapid growth of its costs, SMI will place steadily increasing demands on both taxpayers and beneficiaries.
• For the sixth consecutive year, the Trustees are issuing a determination of projected excess general revenue Medicare funding, as is required by law whenever annual tax and premium revenues of the combined Medicare funds will be below 55 percent of projected combined annual outlays within the next 7 fiscal years. Under the law, two such consecutive determinations of projected excess general revenue consitute a “Medicare funding warning.” Under current law and the Trustees’ projections, such determinations and warnings will recur every year through the 75-year projection period.
How did we get here? As long predicted, demographics explain a good deal: In a decade, the entirety of the boomer generation — some 70 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — will have hit retirement age. As a result, the number of people receiving Social Security benefits come 2034 will be more than double the beneficiaries in 1985.
But what wasn’t known as accurately was how much longer those boomers would live. “From 1940 to 2019, life expectancies at age 65 have increased by about 6.5 years,” says Amy Kemp, chair of the Social Security Committee of the American Academy of Actuaries.
The impact: Many workers will be receiving benefits for a longer period of time. And those with higher incomes, which are generally those who receive higher benefit amounts, tend to live longer on average.
Through the mechanism of the Trust Fund, Congress can put off having to act on the fundamental demographic problem that they can’t do much about. They hope they can run the Magic Money Machine to cover all the goodies they want, and in 2034, the Boomers will mostly be over age 80. Maybe another pandemic will deal with them….
(and nobody cares about us Gen Xers. In 2034, I won’t even be eligible for Social Security old age benefits.)
Nobody expects the Social Security benefits to be cut in 2034, or whatever other magic date when the Trust Fund runs out. The only thing the current Trust Fund mechanism requires is cuts… only if Congress doesn’t actually pass legislation to “fix” the issue.
They have been doing ad hoc “fixes” to Medicare and other parts for years so as to avoid massive cuts.
This year, Social Security’s deficit is unusually high due to lower revenues and higher benefits: 1.75%. In 2040, the deficit climbs to 3.70% rather than 3.54%. In 2080, the deficit stands at 4.87% rather than 4.59%.
Put another way, if there were no Trust Fund accounting mechanism now, the OASI program would have been able to pay 93% of benefits. This would drop to 76% in 2035 – 2040 – 2045, then drop further to being able to pay 70% of benefits.
What’s more, this year, the actuaries changed several assumptions. They assume that by the year 2036, fertility rates will increase to 2.00 children per woman, an increase from the 2020 report’s assumption of 1.95. They also assume a long-term unemployment rate of 4.5% rather than 5%. At the same time, they calculate alternate projections with more pessimistic assumptions, including a continuingly low fertility rate (1.69), a higher rate of mortality improvement (that is, longer-lived recipients), a higher rate of unemployment (5.5%), and others. In these alternate calculations, the 2040 deficit becomes 6.47% rather than 3.7% (benefits 64% payable), and the 2080 deficit becomes 12.39% rather than 4.87% (benefits 50% payable).
Also consider that, at the moment, there are 2.7 workers for each Social Security recipient (2.8 in 2020). This is forecast to drop to 2.2 in 2040 and ultimately down to 2.1. But if the population trends are those of the pessimistic scenario, then that 2.1 would drop to 1.5 by the year 2080.
Trustees for the Social Security trust fund in an annual report released Tuesday said the program is expected to pay benefits that exceed its income in 2021, the same as it anticipated last year at the outset of the pandemic.
The trustees now project elevated mortality rates related to the pandemic through 2023, and expect lower immigration and child-bearing this year and next, compared with their 2020 estimates. They also expect the pandemic has lowered worker productivity and thus economic output permanently.
Given Social Security’s dire financial condition, there is growing interest in attempting to harness the power of private capital markets to bail out the faltering system. However, despite its surface attractiveness, allowing the government to invest funds from the Social Security trust fund in private capital markets would be a terrible mistake that would have severe consequences for the U.S. economy.
Allowing the government to invest the trust fund in private capital markets would amount to the “socialization” of a large portion of the U.S. economy. The federal government would become the nation’s largest shareholder, with a controlling interest in nearly every American company. Government ownership brings with it serious problems of government control and is a threat to the efficiency and competitiveness of the U.S. economy.
Moreover, experience in other countries has shown that government investments seldom achieve the rates of return seen in private investment. Attempts by the government to manipulate the markets could further undermine returns and threaten general market stability.