“Social Security Insolvency” Is Code for Cutting Our Benefits

Fully funding Social Security isn’t hard. We should do it.

Before long, the last of the United States’ 76 million baby boomers will turn 67, and the proportion of Americans who claim Social Security benefits will reach historic highs. It’s no surprise that millions of millennials and Gen Zers think that the program will probably run out of money before they retire.

Despite a lack of public support, conservative think tanks are using this environment to continue to push for cuts to the Social Security program. These reforms are generally described as increases to the retirement age, but they don’t actually change the age at which people can retire; they just cut benefit levels at all eligible Social Security retirement ages.

Underlying most efforts to slash benefits is the claim that the program is facing “insolvency.” This is a scary word that is neither technically accurate nor effective at getting people to understand the real challenges Social Security faces.

The Social Security Administration pays recipients using payroll taxes and the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, whose value increased to $2.9 trillion before the program’s expenditures began to exceed its tax income in 2021. Social Security “insolvency” refers only to the point when the aggregate benefits people could receive exceed the program’s revenues and trust fund assets.

Source: People’s Policy Project

Since the program’s benefit levels are constrained by a solvency requirement, this will trigger an across-the-board benefit cut to balance the two sums. According to the latest Social Security projections, absent program changes, this cut will take effect in 2035 and will amount to a 20 percent reduction, growing to a 26 percent reduction in 2096.

This differs from what people generally think of when they hear the word “insolvency,” which is that the program will collapse entirely, and benefits will stop going out. That will never happen.

In fact, the thing advocates call “insolvency” — an across-the-board benefit cut — is really no different from raising the retirement age, since Social Security does not have just one retirement age but 96, one for each month between ages 62 and 70. What people call the “full retirement age” (FRA) is just a placeholder in a formula that determines the benefit level at all 96 retirement ages.

Source: People’s Policy Project

People who retire at the FRA receive 100 percent of the primary insurance amount (PIA), which is a dollar figure derived from a formula applied to each individual’s earnings record. Those who retire before or after the FRA receive less or more than 100 percent of the PIA, based on how far away from the FRA they are when they retire.

In the scenario graphed above, “insolvency” results in a 20 percent reduction in benefits in 2035. By contrast, raising the FRA to 70 results in a 23 percent benefit reduction, as a larger proportion of retirees find themselves receiving less than the PIA. So “raising the retirement age” doesn’t avoid “insolvency”: these are just two opaque phrases used to describe the exact same policy.

The main reason advocates are able to frighten people with the specter of insolvency is that the current law requires the Social Security program to respond to revenue shortfalls by cutting benefits. But policymakers could easily change this trigger, and they should.

Source: People’s Policy Project

For example, the relevant law could be amended to state that, whenever revenue falls short of scheduled benefits, the Social Security payroll tax will automatically be increased to make the two sums balance. According to the Social Security Administration trustees, we would need to increase the rate by 3.24 percentage points today or by 4.07 percentage points in 2035. These amounts would be lower if we also eliminated the payroll tax cap to ensure that Social Security taxes apply to all earnings, not just those below $160,200 — they could even be zero for most Americans if we made it so that revenue shortfalls only trigger Social Security payroll tax increases on high earners.

Source: Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, OECD

Changing the trigger in this way would not require any new taxes or really alter anything about how the program operates in the near term. All it would do is change the default outcome of so-called insolvency. No longer would it mean automatic benefit cuts — it would instead mean automatic tax increases on the rich. This change would transform negotiations over the Social Security program while completely undercutting the ability of austerity-minded organizations and commentators to mislead and terrify people about Social Security’s future as part of their agenda to cut the program.