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March 30, 2015

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Letter to the editor:

Social Security is easy to ‘save’

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Lately, we have been hearing a lot of talk about “entitlement reform,” specifically referring to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs.

However, most people don’t realize that “saving” Social Security is actually much easier than we think. First, Congress needs to stop “borrowing” money from the Social Security Trust Fund. It’s been doing that for decades.

Social Security has always run a surplus, so our politicians have treated it like a piggy bank. That’s how we ended up with all of those IOU’s (Treasury bills) in the Social Security Trust Fund. The other thing we need to do is make sure that people pay Social Security (FICA) tax on all of their income, not just their first $110,000.

Does that seem fair? I wonder how many people know about this. If we took just those two steps, Social Security would be solvent forever. And with all of the additional revenue coming in, we could reduce FICA tax rates for everyone, including those making more than $110,000. But, unfortunately, you won’t hear any politicians talking about this. It’s much easier for them to just cut people’s benefits.

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  1. I agree with Mr. Stark on removing the income cap of FICA taxes.

    RefNV suggests means testing, which may be necessary eventually under the many current and future circumstances.

    It is also good to remember that Social Security benefits are off budget by law.

    There has been talk about raising the retirement age for recipients from 67 to 70 or somewhere in between. It's a moving target.

    For most retiring now, or in the future, they are already at 66+ or will be 67 when they retire. People who have the capacity to work until 70 may do so, with additional credits they benefit from.

    Life expectancy can change due to the many changing influences on the ability of people to sustain life in either direction.

    The Bush payroll tax cuts, extended by Obama, lowering the FICA tax will adversely effect future retirees. It is a keep it now and suffer later policy. It will undermine the Social Security retirement program.

    This is a big mistake for most people who will need to find another secure way of saving and investing for their retirement. The current benefit from reduced FICA contributions will be eaten up by the additional savings or investments needed for the future. Investments are a gamble, subject to losses, so there is no security in that area.

    Finally, the less wage growth there is for workers, the less gets contributed to Social Security, which may not be enough to provide for the needs of many people without other means of increasing their income in retirement.

    I think personal and family financial management should be a required subject throughout the high school years. Young people need to know and understand what they are going to have to do to ensure their ongoing and retirement needs.

  2. Removing the cap on FICA will increase social security revenue. But make no mistakes. It is a tax on the wealthy. The very ones who will be limited based on their income on how much they will be allowed to receive from social security. The fix, if you can call it that, makes the wealthy, who some polticians like to demonize and penalize, the savior of the social security system for all others. Is that fair? Instead, let's raise the FICA contribution for everyone and leave the cap the same. Then, all who contribute into social security are saving it for the future, not just the wealthy. That's fair.


  3. The various options to fix Social Security have all been scored and are well known. It's only a matter of agreeing on which changes to implement. The sooner we make the changes the smaller they are, so time is not on our side and delay will be costly..

  4. So far, this is a reasonable discussion regarding Social Security. Here is my take.

    There are reasonable actions to take regarding Social Security, yet day after day, nothing is done. The reason is simple. The people we have had and have in office put their personal interests (staying in office) and the interests of their party (obtaining or maintaining power) above the interests of the country.

    Instead of foolishly being manipulated by whatever party one happens to support, and being angry at the opposite party, why don't more Americans be angry at all those in office from both parties that put self interest above the countries interests?

    The solutions are there and many will be painful. Why don't these elected Bozo's we place in office act on some of them? Self Interest! WHEN ARE WE FINALLY GOING TO GET ANGRY AT ALL OF THEM?


  5. The entitlement programs have 3 classes, retirees, the disabled and those who just don't work and have kids with no way to afford the cost to raise them. I think the 3rd class needs the big adjustment here, there are many, but hard, things that could be done to eliminate this class of entitlements. The goverement has not used the SS as a piggy bank, people should really not believe everything they read or hear without research. The SS fund has invested in US bonds just like China or Met Life or any other million investors have. The debt owed by the US goverement is a total seperate issue not related to SS funding. Bear in mind there is a top payout and it is based on what you pay in, so raising the level over 110,000 would mean the top payout would have to be raised, to be fair, after all it is a catch all supplemental
    retirement and health/death package, nobody is supposed to be living off it for retirement and those that are planned poorley and maybe that issue needs to be addressed. The living poor have many other benefits such as monthly cash loaded on thier ebt cards, rent reductions, free medical, heat, food cards, cell phones and more. Small adjustments in SS now and then should really not have much effect on anyone.

  6. Author, you are absolutely correct. And to the others commenting here, disregard the propaganda you've been taught. The two issues cited in this article are all that needs to be done.

  7. "The Bush payroll tax cuts, extended by Obama, lowering the FICA tax will adversely effect future retirees. It is a keep it now and suffer later policy. It will undermine the Social Security retirement program." - peacelily

    You are incorrect in attributing the payroll tax reduction, that is, FICA taxes, to Bush. That was done solely by President Obama. Bush reduced federal income tax rates only. Yes, Obama did extend the Bush income tax cuts.

    In theory Obama's payroll tax holiday was to be offset by fees charged elsewhere, but I have not heard if that has actually happened. The net effect is that Obama has pushed up the time when the SS trust fund is broke, and transferred even more the the IOUs in the lock box into the general debt.

    Like essentially every other aspect of our economic problems today, the SS trust fund is greatly influenced by how many people are working. Our high unemployment rate, or rather, the low employment rate, is only making it worse.

    Restoring jobs to Americans must be part of the overall fix.

  8. It's very interesting how everyone has a way to fix Social Security.Some say we should raise the retirement age to 70,others say we should raise Social Security rates on workers who contribute to the trust fund.

    But no where has anyone found or mentioned a way for the pay back the 2.7 trillion it borrowed from the Social Security trust fund (used for other programs) and has never paid it back.

    Perhaps we should be looking for ways to help the back the 2.7 trillion it borrowed from the Social security trust fund. Now that might solve the Social Security problem.

  9. Freeman,

    "During the next 75 years,Social Security will owe an estimated 11.3 trillion more in benifits than it will receive in payroll taxes".

    I'm assuming that you put together these figures without considering some sort of fix during the next 75 years? I think Social Security will be fixed long before this time arrives.

    No I'm not the great Santini,(Sam Pizzo)from WW11.
    No relation,I do get asked that question all the time.A great American with his dedicated service for our country.

  10. Routinely, someone proposes raising the retirement age because life expectancy has drastically increased since it was implemented. The truth is far less impressive. True, overall life expectancy DID increase fairly dramatically in the 20th century. Most of that increase was due to a drastic decline in child deaths. The key datum is life expectancy of people who have managed to reach age 65, current retirement age. That has gone up, but only slightly.

    Between 1900 and 2000 overall life expectancy has increased as follows:

    White men: +28 years
    Black men: +35 years
    White women: +31 years
    Black women: +41 years

    During that same period, life expectancy for people who have reached age 65 has increased as follows:

    White men: +4 years
    Black men: +5 years
    White women: +7 years
    Black women: +7 years

    Commonly people who want to raise the SS retirement age, want to raise it to 67 or so - at one leap or over a period of time, no one really says. Reality: the current retirement age for people born in 1960 or later is CURRENTLY age 67. Does anyone want to argue that the retirement age for women should be raised so it's 2 or 3 years above that for men simply because women live that much longer than men??

  11. boftx,

    Thank you, I made an error and appreciate you correcting me. Yes, Obama is the bad guy regarding the FICA payroll reduction, and one source of shorting SS in the future. I add that to my list of bad things from Obama.

    I've read he proposed to drop it to 1% as well, an even worse problem. I hope that is reversed in the current negotiations, but not knowing the details makes me left guessing.

    I'm wondering if they have some calculation that factors in the demise of the baby boomer generation that will balance it out for future generations of SS recipients? I wouldn't want to count on that!

    You are correct that jobs must be part of the fix, as well as proportional wage growth to profits.

  12. renorobert,

    The life expectancy between men and women is increasingly becoming equalized due to increased heart attacks, strokes and cancer in women at an earlier age. Eventually, it will be the same. Sooner than later. Call it the effect of having the privilege of more women in the workforce, and the stress that was once on the single earner male workers only.

  13. PS Many women have both the homemaker job and the workplace job, to the male workplace job.

    Now, both may be holding multiple workplace jobs as well.

  14. Medicaid does include some adults that don't work. This includes full time female students with children who can't earn enough for the needs of their kids.

    These women move off Medicaid when they graduate and get a job, which the majority do. They got a hand up to get independence and become taxpayers.

    Another group are adults who care for mentally or physically disabled children who are wards of the state living in Foster Homes offering full time care with a foster family.
    The Medicaid support is not for the adults, it is for the children and is not a huge amount.

    Another group are the severely disabled and seniors who are totally dependent on custodial nursing home care, which Medicare doesn't cover.

    Disabled adults who are unemployable may also receive Medicaid for the support of any children they may have. Again, not alot of money.

    Anyone can find themselves in circumstances that require a good support system. Just because we haven't to date doesn't mean we won't someday.

    If we just look at budget numbers, without understanding where the money goes, the people involved, the circumstances, we can miss the real need and reason for such assistance.

    There are certainly abuses that need to be dealt with, but for some time taxpayers have been unwilling to support the administrative costs for sufficient social workers to monitor and investigate abuses. That should be changed.

    Some doctors are also complicit in aiding abuse by some recipients.

    If reforms need to be made, we need to find ways to make reforms that maintain the humane aspects of the programs. Even doing that is not enough under the current system which is bare bones in many instances, at the expense of those who have no ability to manage or support themselves.

    We must look at the adverse effects to the people who will suffer the result of budgetary reforms, which they have no voice in.

    If we thought in terms of growing the economy through higher education, jobs with real wage growth, closing tax havens and shelters, there could be less gnashing of teeth over the help we give to those who cannot help themselves, even with just reforms to Medicaid where needed.

    Another area that could bring a Medicaid savings, would be to have a single payer universal healthcare system.

  15. I am the author of this letter to the editor, and I want to thank everyone for the many fine points that they have raised in response to my letter.

    As far as Social Security running a deficit since 2010, that can be attributed to President Obama's reduction of the FICA tax from 6.2% to 4.2% in 2010. He did this as part of the "stimulus" package. It's scheduled to return to the full rate of 6.2% next year (2013).

    The problem with Congress "borrowing" money from the Social Security Trust Fund (and replacing our hard earned FICA tax dollars with treasury bills) is that it creates a debt that the American taxpayer eventually has to repay. It totally defeats the purpose of the Trust Fund, which is supposed to have "money" in it, not public debt obligations. And, because of this longstanding policy which has been in effect for decades, we end up being taxed twice. First, we pay the FICA tax which goes into the Trust Fund, which is then taken out by the government and used for other purposes. Later, when the time comes for Social Security to "cash in" (redeem) those treasury bills, guess who the government calls on to pay it back? Once again, it's the American taxpayer. So, we end up paying twice. First, we fund the system with our FICA tax dollars, and then we get taxed again to replace the funds that the government has removed from it to fund other projects. This, my friends, is nuts. And people wonder why our National Debt is going through the roof? We wouldn't run out households like this (I hope). So why do we run our country this way?

    My suggestion of eliminating the FICA cap would solve Social Security's financing issues permanently. So, why isn't it being done, you ask? Primarily because there would be enormous push back from those who earn over $110,000. This is understandable. That was why I suggested a reduction in the overall FICA tax rate in conjunction with the elimination of the cap. I believe with all of the additional revenue coming in we would be able to reduce FICA tax rates significantly for everyone. So, while earnings over $110,000 would be subject to FICA tax under my proposal, the actual FICA tax "rate" might be much lower than the current rate, which could offset some of the adverse tax consequences for those earning more than $110,000.

    I disagree with the "means testing" of high wage earners. I believe that everyone who pays into the system deserves to get something back. Obviously, if we eliminated the cap, and taxed everyone on all of their income, we would have to redo the formula for calculating benefits, to ensure that everyone receives a fair return on their lifetime FICA contributions.

  16. The current Social Security tax is widely considered a regressive tax, because it places an undue burden on individuals earning under $110,000, who have to pay the full amount of the FICA tax of 6.2% on ALL of their income. By way of contrast, an individual who earns a million dollars would have approximately $900,000 of his income exempt from FICA tax. So, by "broadening the base" (removing the FICA earnings cap), we can "lower the rates" for FICA tax for everyone.

    This is a concept that Mitt Romney mentioned quite a bit during the recent Presidential election, but he was applying it to Federal income tax rates, not FICA tax rates. He wanted to "broaden the base" to include the 47% who currently don't pay federal income tax (for a variety of reasons). It occurred to me that this concept could just as easily be applied to our social security FICA tax, where earnings above $110,000 are exempt from the tax. "Broaden the base and lower the rates". It's a slogan with more than one potential application. If we did it, we could save Social Security without having to reduce benefits any further.

    One final note. Social Security actuaries have determined that even if we do nothing and exhaust the Trust Fund, there will still be enough income collected from the FICA taxes of present and future workers to pay 75% of promised benefits far into the future. That is a significant payout from a system that is supposedly going bankrupt. And, of course, no one is suggesting doing nothing.

    There is also stress being placed on the system by our current, aging, baby boomer population of which I am one. However, this stress will not last forever. At some point in the not too distant future, all of us baby boomers will be gone. If we make the right decisions now, Social Security will still be here for our children and grandchildren, serving them as effectively as it serves us today.

    So, let's get on with the "entitlement reform". But let's do it in a way that strengthens Social Security, not weakens it. No more cutting benefits. Let's put Social Security on a sound financial footing forever.

  17. First off, the payroll tax cut for the past year was "paid for" by transferring money from the general fund to the Social Security Trust Fund.
    What we need to decide is what Social Security is:

    1) A true retirement program, available to all.
    2) An entitlement program to provide for those who can't afford retirement.

    We've been trying to have both, and understandably, it doesn't do either well. Given the popularity of 401Ks and other retirement programs, it's clear that most Americans don't view it as a retirement program, which leaves us with #2. The FICA tax cap is ridiculous... It should be a flat tax rate for all workers, regardless of income (isn't that what Republicans want for income tax?). Raising the retirement age, means testing benefits, and better indexing inflation should be part of the conversation as well.

  18. Marty: So HOW INSANE are these payroll tax holidays? Just a ploy for Obama to increase his popularity at the cost of solvency? And, by the way, I think you go say the same (as your letter) about Medicare--there are solutions if we can take the MEDICAID expense out of the formula.

  19. I followed the link that Re Freeman gave us to the Heritage Foundation's website, which turns out to be a Conservative think tank. Their projections are unreliable, for a variety of reasons.

    First of all, this study is more than 10 years old. It was published on 10/17/2001, just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks. A lot has changed since then, both economically and otherwise.

    Secondly, their projections are based on models developed by Heritage Foundation economists, not government economists. Although they claim their methodology "embodies" the economic and budgetary assumptions from the Congressional Budget Office, it is still a Heritage Foundation study, not a government study. Their projections have not been verified and confirmed by qualified non-partisan sources (such as the CBO), so we can't rely on them.

    And, to prove my point, I found a misstatement at the very beginning of the Heritage.Org research report. In the second paraghraph, it stated "In order to maintain the benefit payments from the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) program, in 2017, Congress will either have to raise taxes or begin to borrow substantial sums from the public."

    The above statement is totally incorrect, and places the rest of their report in doubt. Social security will not have to "borrow" to maintain benefit payments beginning 2017. According to the most recent Trustees Report, there are sufficient reserves in the Social Security Trust Fund to last until 2033, so that will be enough to cover any shortfalls in benefits that occur between now and then. Thereafter, IF NOTHING IS DONE, there will be enough income from FICA taxes to pay 75% of promised benefits through 2086. And, that's if we do nothing.

    What we need is an objective, non-biased source (such as the CBO) to take a look at my proposal, and see if it can work. What I am suggesting is a two pronged approach; not just lifting the cap, but also lowering the FICA tax rates for everyone. So, although it might be viewed as a tax increase for some, because it would be subjecting more income (over $110,000) to FICA tax, it would simultaneously be a tax cut for everyone, by reducing the prevailing FICA TAX RATES. I would like to see the Heritage Foundation plug my proposed tax cut into their formula, and see what we come up with.

    Here is the link to the most recent Social Security Trustees Report from 2012.

  20. Now, responding to Roberta. As far as Medicare and Medicaid goes, that is an entirely different situation because there are a lot more variables involved. Healthcare is a whole different ballgame, because we have to deal with doctors, hospitals, drug companies, etc. Saving social security is like a piece of cake compared to that. That's why I only addressed social security in my letter to the editor. Medicare and Medicaid is much more complicated, so I would prefer to deal with that topic on another thread.

  21. Ref 3:34: Now you know why GOP is fixating on "entitlement" reform over discretionary spending reform--cause the affluent will pay for entitlements, more and more. You might want to consider that FICA (SS and Medicare insurance contributions) SHOULD BE on stock options and such--fixes the effective tax rate without Alternative Minimum Tax considerations.

  22. We should consider imposing a fee on imports equivalent to the the FICA taxes that would have been paid on the labor portion of the goods being brought in. Those fees should be considered FICA revenue and placed in the appropriate trust funds.

    This would help relieve pressure on SS as well as help our domestic manufacturing. It is conceivable that the amount collected would be great enough to reduce the overall rates for everyone.

    I suspect that the WTO would veto such a plan.

  23. Re Freeman and Roberta Anderson,

    First, let me thank you for posting the link to the CBO 2012 Long-Term Projections for Social Security. It contains a lot of useful information, very similar to what I found in the link that I posted regarding the Trustee's Report.

    Unfortunately, the CBO report does not make any projections regarding the feasibility of eliminating the FICA cap on taxable earnings. Yes, it does talk about FICA tax receipts being insufficient to pay the full benefit amounts since 2010, which is largely due to the fact that the FICA tax rate was reduced by 2% in 2010 in order to stimulate the economy. The CBO projects that FICA tax receipts will continue to fall short in the coming years as well. They suggest several ways to alleviate this problem, such as increasing the FICA tax rate or decreasing benefit payouts. However, nowhere in this CBO report did they consider the option of eliminating the FICA cap. That option was addressed by the Heritage Foundation study which, as I said, is a private study not authorized by any government agency. As far as I know, my proposal to eliminate the FICA cap has never been scored by the CBO.

    Now, let's talk about the other part of my proposal, which is to lower FICA tax rates across the board, in conjunction with the removal of the FICA cap. Since I have never heard anyone else make this proposal, I don't have any hard figures to fall back on. I can tell you that I am proposing to extend the social security tax, which is a FLAT TAX of 6.2%, to include all earned income. At the same time, by "broadening the base" in this way to encompass all earned income, it seems logical (to me) that we should be able to reduce FICA tax rates for everyone. But, until the CBO comes in and scores this, we're just talking off the top of our heads. They are the ones most qualified to calculate this. Since they haven't, I'll do my best and try to give you an example of what I am talking about.

    Let's say someone is paying the maximum FICA tax of 6.2% on $110,000 in wages. That comes to a FICA tax amount of $6820. Now, let's say that under my proposal the FICA tax rate could be cut in half, to 3.1%. And, let's say that this worker we're talking about is actually earning $220,000 per year, not $110,000. So, the actual FICA tax he would owe, with those facts, would still be $6820 (the same amount of tax that he paid when the FICA tax rate was 6.2%). This is just an example of how it could work. Obviously, it would be different for each worker. The higher the income, the higher the amount of tax owed. But, everyone's earnings would be subject to the same FICA tax RATE, regardless of income.

  24. As is obvious from this discussion, this is a very complicated issue. Of course, there are other options available besides mine.

    We could go back to the Social Security Act the way it was in 1935; before Congress amended it to add entire classes of beneficiaries to it. It's initial purpose was just to pay a monthly benefit to individuals age 65 and older and no longer working.

    We could stop paying benefits to spouses, widows, children, and disabled individuals. That would save a lot of money, wouldn't it ? We wouldn't even have to cut the "benefit rate" because we would have eliminated almost all classes of benefits currently payable. But, do we really want to go that way ?

    Social Security is a safety net, in the same way that our private insurance plans are safety nets. When you take out an insurance plan, there is no guarantee that you will ever collect anything on it. There are insurance plans that you hope you will never collect anything on, such as life insurance policies. Personally, I prefer the insurance plan that we call "Social Security" because it is not volatile like the stock market. And, we don't have to worry about the "company" (in this case the U.S. Government) going out of business or not paying off the policy for some other reason (under Congress loses its mind). I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Let's take a serious look at Social Security and, finally, fix it !!

  25. Do I really see someone quoting skewed data from Heritage? The group funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers?

    I suggest you leave your biased conservative big money bought spew where you found it and get some factual data.

    Listening to billionaire bought research will make you a serf. Koch Brothers and those like/quoting them have an agenda - to starve and enslave us all. #crazytown @AlecExposed @KochExposed

  26. Marty, you are talking about the employee portion, not the matching employer, contribution--better chance of passage if you don't take on all the businesses as well.

  27. boftx: Great idea to increase the costs of imports and raise revenue--let consumers pay closer to the real cost on imports--since imports cost American jobs and taxpayers pick up the tab for the social welfare, UC, job training, college costs etal to pretend the workers are going to refocus their careers after losing jobs to imports.

  28. We CANNOT limit SS benefits to the amount paid in, even with a ROI. SS was designed to preclude absolute destitution for aged Americans who had worked for years and years. It was not designed to be a cushy retirement plan. You were supposed to also have savings and/or a pension from an employer. Now it's rather obvious that many retire to only SS and have lost homes if they had any. They've bought into the higher-ed hype and squandered whatever savings they managed by helping their kids go to college. So now they have adult, college-educated, UNEMPLOYED offspring who need to share their living space and food stamps. And you want to redesign things to smaller benefits so Obama can keep spending on teachers (free college and lifetime income for tenure but no PROFICIENCY) and wars?

  29. Roberta,

    You are correct. Better chance of passage if we don't take on businesses.

    There are also good economic reasons for not requiring businesses to match the additional FICA contributions. We don't want to increase their cost of doing business because that would have a negative impact on the hiring and retention of employees, prices of goods and services, etc.

    And, here's another interesting twist on my proposal. If we could reduce the FICA tax rate, as I have suggested, many employers would actually see a reduction in their matching FICA contributions (not an increase). That would apply to employers who have employees earning less than $110,000. This would also have the added benefit of providing an additional stimulus or "boost" to our economy.

    Social Security benefit payments have never been limited by the total amount of FICA tax paid in, primarily because it is an "insurance program", not an "investment program". Lifetime payouts to individual beneficiaries have always been determined by two factors; the monthly benefit amount, and how long the beneficiary lives. So, some people collect much more than they put in, especially when you include benefits to non-working spouses's and children. Others may die before they ever collect a penny from SSA. However, some of those will have widows and children who will collect benefits.

    So, this is a comprehensive "safety net" program without a direct parallel in the private sector. It's goal is, and always has been, to keep people from becoming destitute, and it has served this purpose very well over the past 75 years. No one gets rich on social security. At best, it provides a comfortable standard of living for those who need it.

    Also, it should never be forgotten that Social Security benefits provide a needed stimulus to the economy as the beneficiaries use it to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities. No one should ever view this as a hand-out. It benefits EVERYONE in our society, whether they receive benefits or not.

    I hope that when Congress finally gets around to addressing the issue of "entitlement reform", they will consider some of the options I suggested in my letter to the editor.

  30. Cognastics,

    I don't know where you get your information, but you obviously don't know very much about Social Security. Did you even read any of my previous comments ?

    Your statement that the Social Security program was "designed to favor the older baby boomers" is pure nonsense.

    Social Security is a 75 year old program which pays benefits to a wide range of beneficiaries in all age groups. It pays benefits to spouses, children under the age of 18, widows of any age, disabled children over the age of 18, disabled workers of any age, as well as retired workers who have attained the age of 62-66.

    Your caricature of the "baby boomers" serves absolutely no purpose, other than to put people on notice that they shouldn't take your opinions too seriously.