The debt fallout: How Social Security went ‘cash negative’ earlier than expected

Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went “cash negative.”

For most of its 75-year history, the program had paid its own way through a dedicated stream of payroll taxes, even generating huge surpluses for the past two decades. But in 2010, under the strain of a recession that caused tax revenue to plummet, the cost of benefits outstripped tax collections for the first time since the early 1980s.

Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation’s budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.

But while talk about fixing the nation’s finances has grown more urgent, fixing Social Security has largely vanished from the conversation.

Lawmakers in both parties are ducking the issue, wary of agitating older voters and their advocates in Washington, who have long targeted politicians who try to tamper with federal retirement benefits. Democrats lost control of the House last year in part because seniors abandoned them in protest over Medicare cuts in Obama’s much-contested health-care act, and no one in Washington has forgotten that lesson.

In his February budget request, Obama ignored the Social Security blueprint put forth by his own bipartisan panel on debt reduction. During this summer’s debt-limit showdown, he endorsed the panel’s proposal to tie future benefits to a less-generous inflation index. But Obama took that idea off the table in September when he submitted recommendations to a special debt-reduction “supercommittee” now at work on Capitol Hill. Until recently, members of the supercommittee said, Social Security had rarely come up in their closed deliberations.

Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget. But unless Congress acts, its finances will continue to deteriorate as the rising tide of baby boomers begins claiming benefits. The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.

Many Democrats have largely chosen to ignore the shortfall, insisting the program is flush, citing the existence of the trust fund. They argue that fixing Social Security can wait, perhaps for years.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is fighting to maintain control of the Senate, has been particularly outspoken. In March, as a bipartisan group of six senators was gaining attention for a push to draft a debt-reduction plan that included a Social Security fix, Reid summoned hundreds of activists to a rally on Capitol Hill. Fresh off a tough reelection campaign that turned in his favor after he accused his tea party opponent of wanting to “wipe out” Social Security, Reid exhorted policymakers to “leave Social Security alone.”

“Let’s worry about Social Security when it’s a problem. Today, it is not a problem,” Reid said to applause.

In an MSNBC interview, he added: “Social Security does not add a single penny, not a dime, a nickel, a dollar to the budget problems we have. Never has and, for the next 30 years, it won’t do that.”

Such statements have not been true since at least 2009, when the cost of monthly checks regularly began to exceed payroll tax collections. A spokesman said Reid stands by his comments and his view that Social Security is entirely self-financed. But Reid’s position has frustrated some Democrats who argue that fixing Social Security — the government’s single-largest program — would go a long way toward restoring confidence among future retirees and the nation’s investors.

“It’s the one thing I’ve had the most difficult time grasping,” said Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who co-chaired Obama’s fiscal panel with former GOP senator Alan Simpson.

The Bowles-Simpson plan would have righted the system’s finances with a combination of payroll tax increases and reductions in scheduled benefits, mainly years down the road. It would have hit upper-income workers while raising benefits for the most needy, those with average lifetime earnings of less than $11,000 a year. “By making these relatively small changes, you make it solvent and you make it be there for people who depend on it,” Bowles said. “I thought that’s what we as Democrats were supposed to be for.”

Just as the GOP has rejected any form of tax increase to contain the debt, however, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have ruled out any reduction in government retirement benefits. Last week, Reid softened his stand, backing a Democratic proposal to the supercommittee that included the change in the Social Security inflation index. In return, however, Democrats demanded $1.3 trillion in new tax revenue — which Republicans instantly rejected, leaving the ideological divide as wide as ever.

Even that modest change to Social Security is drawing fire, however, from a powerful network of organizations representing the elderly, unionized workers and traditional liberals. For years, these groups have cast any proposal to trim the growth in retirement benefits as unnecessary — and as a mean-spirited attack on the elderly.

In recent weeks, AARP, the nation’s largest and most influential seniors organization, has been airing television ads in which an older man warns viewers that “some in Washington want to make a deal cutting the Social Security and Medicare benefits we worked for,” instead of cutting “waste and loopholes.” AARP’s legislative director, David Certner, said the ads reflect the popular view that Social Security should not be dragged into a separate debate over the nation’s escalating debt.

“We paid into these programs all our lives,” he said. “This is our money. Congress has no business cutting into this program.”

The public relations campaign has proved effective, particularly in the wake of a recession that devastated private retirement accounts and left even younger people anxious about the future. Eighty-two percent of Americans worry that Social Security will not deliver promised benefits, according to a recent poll for Americans for a Secure Retirement. Fifty percent oppose cutting the program “no matter what.”

Poll numbers such as those have an impact. “If you’re trying to win an election, you look at this and say, ‘It is a lost cause,’ ” said former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who co-chaired a 1994 Social Security commission. “AARP has made a decision to make it almost impossible” to fix the program, he said. “If they tag you as someone who wants to cut benefits, you’re dead in the water.”

Even some longtime champions of Social Security are getting frustrated by the lack of movement. “The political stance of my progressive friends is you can’t touch anything, and that doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and an economist in the Clinton White House. “Social Security is the backbone of our retirement system,” Munnell said in an interview. “We should fix it because people are going to need it.”

A costly transformation

What Congress gives, it finds almost impossible to take away.

Created during the Great Depression, Social Security grew in popularity as Congress repeatedly raised benefits through the 1950s and 1960s and then, in the 1970s, set initial benefits to rise automatically with wages and with inflation thereafter.

Those changes made the program vastly more expensive than the “old age and survivors” insurance originally envisioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He wanted to protect workers and their families from financial hardship due to death, disability or aging. Retirement benefits were available at 65, at a time when life expectancy was significantly lower than today.

“The American social insurance plan works on the assumption that I will work, make meaningful contributions and, if I face one of these common tragedies of life — unemployment, disability, impending death — collectively we’re going to pool the risk together,” said Andy Achenbaum, a University of Houston professor who has written extensively about Social Security. But, he said, “I really was expected to work as long as I could contribute.”

That began to change as the concept of retirement gripped the public imagination, Achenbaum said. In the 1950s, financial executives began trying to persuade people to “invest” in their retirement, making it something to save for, like a new car. The 1960s gave rise to the “Golden Years,” a concept popularized by housing developer Del Webb, who broke ground for his first leisure community in Sun City, Ariz., in 1961.

Congress aided the transformation, enacting an “early eligibility age” that permitted qualified workers to claim Social Security benefits at age 62.

Retirement was no longer viewed as a brief period of rest at the end of life. It became an integral element of the American dream, said author Marc Freedman, who has studied the cultural history of retirement. “People scrimped and saved and deferred gratification to get to it as soon as possible — not even 65 or 62, but in your 50s,” Freedman said. “That became the definition of success: Whoever gets there first, wins.”

The average age for claiming Social Security benefits dropped from 68 in 1940 to 63 in 1980, where it remains. Meanwhile, average life expectancy has risen by five years. The average worker spends 20 years drawing benefits. A quarter will see their 90th birthday.

As a result, the average retirees have gotten back far more in federal benefits than they paid into the system during their working life, according to research by Eugene Steuerle, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. That return is diminishing, in part because people today have paid more into the system than previous generations. But a two-earner, middle-income couple retiring this year can expect to get $913,000 in Social Security and Medicare benefits over their lifetimes, in return for $717,000 in payroll taxes.

“I don’t think anybody envisioned a 30-year retirement,” Freedman said. “That was never really the goal. And it certainly doesn’t make any sense today.”

‘That’s not the deal’

No crystal ball is necessary to predict Social Security’s future. Hard numbers tell the story. Social Security supports about 55 million people. By 2035, that figure will swell to 91 million. Today, for every person claiming benefits, there are three workers paying into the system. By 2035, there will be two.

Congress foresaw this as early as 1983. Inflation had driven the program’s costs through the roof. After decades of expansion, Congress finally had to scale back the program, choosing to tax wealthier retirees’ benefits and gradually raise the retirement age to 67.

Those changes, along with other adjustments, restored solvency and promised yearly surpluses that would build up the trust fund in preparation for the retirements of the baby boom. The surpluses were invested in special Treasury bonds, which, by law, must be repaid with interest.

Assuming they are, Social Security can pay full benefits through 2036. Once the trust fund is depleted, the system would rely solely on incoming taxes, and benefits would have to be cut by about 25 percent across the board.

Several factors have disrupted even that timetable. The recent recession caused the program to go cash negative years earlier than expected. The payroll tax holiday is depriving the system of revenue. And 10 years of escalating debt have crippled the government’s ability to repay the trust fund.

Certner, of the AARP, said it is unfair to cut Social Security benefits to solve that problem.

“The federal government is saying, ‘We’re in the red right now and we’re having trouble paying back Social Security, so we’d like to cut Social Security benefits,’ ” Certner said. “But that’s not the deal.”

Others argue that the deal has long since been abandoned and that the trust fund has become a fiction of accounting. “We can debate until the cows come home whether there’s really a trust fund or not,” said Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who served on a 2001 presidential commission to study Social Security. “But the fact is, there’s no money available to pay for those benefits. And the system is short on cash now.”

Few argue that Social Security is too generous. This year, the average retirement check is $1,181 a month, or about $14,000 a year. Because of caps in the formula, even the wealthiest Americans get checks of only about $2,500 a month.

“Benefits are probably too high for upper-income workers,” who should be able to save more on their own, said David John, a retirement expert at the Heritage Foundation. But, he added, “they are actually too low for lower-income workers.”

“If we focused on this, we could fix it,” John said, but that pragmatic approach has been stymied by competing ideological views about the program’s purpose.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has long allied with those who want to preserve the current benefit structure, surprised much of Washington last year when, as a member of the Bowles-Simpson commission, he backed cuts in benefits as well as tax increases to stabilize the program.

The panel’s report — and Durbin’s vote — drew howls from Social Security’s defenders. Obama declined to back it. And Senate leaders resisted an effort by Durbin and five other senators from both parties to bring the plan to a vote in the Senate, an effort that ultimately failed.

In an interview, Durbin said he decided to back the Bowles-Simpson plan because he viewed it as “a chance to seize a bipartisan opportunity” to restore the program to solvency. He said friends assured him that regular people would accept ideas such as gradually raising the normal retirement age to 68 over 40 years: “To a person, they said, ‘Over 40 years? That’s not a problem.’ ”

“The reaction from some of the groups — and they’re my friends — I think was an overreaction,” Durbin said. “As I looked at this, I thought small changes made today will give 50 years or more solvency to Social Security. And that should be our goal.”

Running in the Red

This story is part of an occasional series examining the origins and consequences of the nation’s escalating debt. For earlier installments in the series, go to washingtonpost.com/runninginthered.

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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