You may have heard that Social Security is facing serious financial problems, and you may have seen over years that Congress has done very little about them.
It is an interesting contradiction that stems in part from 3 urban legends about the program. We - the voter - hear them so much that we assume that there must be some truth in them. There isn’t.
These convictions shape who we elect, and seriously limit what candidates are willing to say to the electorate. Our firm belief in these myths leaves actual policy makers herding unicorns.
1. In a worst case scenario, the program will pay benefits until 2034.
The date 2034 is not intended as a measure of how long we can do nothing. It is meant as a warning of danger of what might happen in a normal economy, one far removed from a worst-case scenario.
The Trustees actually believe that it is basically a coin-flip whether Social Security will pay scheduled benefits into 2034. (Source: Figure VI.E2. — Long-Range OASDI Trust Fund). Even the word “probably” is still too strong.
Thus, our understanding of Social Security has converted a warning of danger into a strength of the system.
2. Even if the Trust Fund runs out, the program will still collect enough to pay you 77 percent of your benefits.
In reality, we don’t know. We do not know the size of the cuts, and we do not even know how the reductions would be distributed to the individual. (Source: Congressional Research Service, “Social Security: What Would Happen If the Trust Funds Ran Out.”)
While the program as a whole may in fact reduce benefits paid in total by 23 percent, there is no reason to believe that each individual will get 23 percent less.
At this point, current law limits what Social Security can pay each year, but it does not reduce benefits of any individual.
Technically, this means that you will continue to get your full benefits at some point, but not on the due date. Thus, you might retire at 67 and your first check might arrive when you are 68.
We have no idea what happens when the Trust Fund reaches exhaustion.
3. There is an easy fix for Social Security’s woes: raise taxes by 2.83 percent.
The trustees did say 2.83 percent – just not in that context.
First, raising payroll taxes by 2.83 percent (to 18.1 percent) does not fix Social Security. It is a measure to kick the can for 75 years. That would be great for us, but not so good for our kids.
Second, the statement is based on a basic misunderstanding of the data. Pundits have converted what is essentially contrast-information about the problem into a do-it-yourself solution.
Here is what the Trustees have actually said. It is possible to fill-in the gaps in the program’s finances over 75 years with revenue that equates to 2.83 percent of taxable wages - provided that incremental revenue does not cause wage growth to slow.
In this case, pundits are assuming that an 18 percent increase in tax rate will equate to an 18 percent increase in revenue as though taxes have no economic consequence.
Moreover, this solution is apt to create problems for Medicare, another one of our social insurance programs. If we raise the payroll tax to give Social Security more money, the wage growth on which Medicare’s problems are gauged would evaporate.
Editor's Note: This article originally published on Newsmax, and was republished by request and permission from the author.