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Another urgent item for Biden’s to-do list: The looming Social Security funding crisis

The effects of the pandemic and the recession could accelerate shortfalls in trust funds

(zimmytws/Bigstock) (ziimmytws/Bigstock)

When you inherit a mess, as President Biden has, everyone needs you to make their issue a priority.

The coronavirus is still spreading, causing thousands of deaths each day, and we can’t get enough vaccine in the arms of people to stop it or at least slow it down.

People are struggling to pay their rent or mortgages or put food on the table. Last week, 900,000 people filed new unemployment claims.

Now is not the time to mess with Social Security

Biden is moving fast to help. He has extended the payment pause for federal student loans until September. By executive order, he has extended a freeze on evictions nationwide through the end of March. Biden also extended to March a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for borrowers with federally guaranteed mortgages.

But there’s another matter that should get Biden’s immediate attention. Right now, while the Democrats control the House and Senate, Biden needs to put this on his to-do list: fixing Social Security.

Many young adults already believe Social Security won’t be around for them to collect. Although Social Security isn’t bankrupt, it’s certainly facing a serious shortfall in income to cover promised payments.

“Social Security and Medicare both face long-term financing shortfalls under currently scheduled benefits and financing,” according to the 2020 trustee report for the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

The reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund (OASI), which pays retirement and survivor benefits, will be unable to pay full benefits by 2034, the Social Security Board of Trustees projected. Without legislative action, in little more than a decade, the OASI will have enough tax income to pay out only 76 percent of scheduled payments.

The Disability Insurance Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, is in slightly better shape. The fund will have enough money coming in to cover 92 percent of scheduled benefits. The disability trust fund is healthier, in part, because applications have been decreasing since 2010. The number of disabled-worker beneficiaries receiving payments has also declined.

However, given the impact of the coronavirus on millions of individuals, the solvency of the disability trust fund may be in jeopardy sooner than the projections show.

In an update last April, the trustees noted that the pandemic could affect the financial health of the funds. “The duration and severity of the pandemic will affect the estimates … and the financial status of the program, particularly in the short term,” said Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul.

And now we know that some people are having health issues long after recovering from the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that long-term symptoms have included joint pain, respiratory abnormalities, inflammation of the heart muscle and depression.

In November, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Chief Actuary released an update noting that the effects of the pandemic and the recession on the trust funds “will be significant.”

More people unemployed means less payroll taxes collected. Low interest rates may help boost consumer spending, but that also means less income earned on the securities held by the trust funds, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation pointed out in a blog post last year.

The virus-related economic downturn will probably accelerate the timing of the shortfalls, according to a brief by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Social Security is the financial lifeline for millions of Americans. Fifty-seven percent of retirees rely on Social Security as their major source of income, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

Should you take Social Security early? For some, coronavirus changes the math on waiting until you’re 70.

President Donald Trump left office without taking any action to fix Social Security.

One solution often touted is raising the income threshold for the Social Security payroll tax. This year, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax will increase to $142,800, up from $137,700. Earnings above the maximum are not subject to the Social Security tax, which is 6.2 percent for employees and a matching 6.2 percent for employers.

There’s no income cap for the Medicare tax, which is 2.9 percent. (Employers pay 1.45 percent and employees cover the other half.). The self-employed pay the entire 12.4 percent for Society Security and 2.9 percent for Medicare.

Of the 178 million workers with earnings in Social Security-covered employment in 2019, about 6 percent had earnings that equaled or exceeded the maximum amount subject to taxes, according to the Social Security Administration.

During his campaign, Biden said that, if elected, he would address the solvency problem by adding a new tier of FICA contributions for high-earners. He recommends applying the payroll tax to income above $400,000, which would still extend the life of the trust funds by only about five years, according to a report by the Urban Institute.

"The plan he has outlined will ensure benefit cuts are never on the table while putting Social Security on a path to long-term solvency by asking the wealthy to pay their fair share,” White House spokeswoman Rosemary Boeglin said in an email.

Thanks to Social Security, you are probably in better shape for retirement than you think

On the White House website, the Biden administration listed its “immediate priorities” — containing the coronavirus, encouraging a clean-energy revolution, addressing systemic racism, providing relief to people struggling with the economic fallout from the pandemic, providing affordable health care, reforming immigration, and finally restoring America’s global standing.

It’s an ambitious list. Every action is worthy of Biden’s attention now, but tackling the looming Social Security crisis needs top billing, too.