5 Sobering Facts About Social Security You Shouldn't Panic Over

By Emily Guy Birken on 4 May 2017 0 comments

Most people tend not to think about Social Security until they are in a position to collect benefits. Unfortunately, letting Social Security be something you worry about "later" can cause costly problems — both for you as a beneficiary, and for the program as a whole.

Here are five sobering facts about Social Security that you should know now so that you will be prepared for potential issues in the future. (See also: 6 Smart Ways to Boost Your Social Security Payout Before Retirement)

1. The Social Security Trust Fund may be entirely depleted by 2034

Social Security is set up as a direct transfer of funds from current workers to current beneficiaries. However, when the taxes coming in to pay for Social Security exceed the expenses for the program, the surplus is placed in the Social Security Trust Fund, where it earns interest. As of 2010, Social Security expenses have exceeded the tax revenue, and the Social Security Administration has had to dip into the Trust Fund in order to pay out all promised benefits. As of 2013, the Trust Fund began losing value, and it is projected to be entirely depleted by the year 2034.

When the Trust Fund runs out of money, the projected tax revenue will cover only 79 percent of promised benefits. This means anyone who is entitled to a $1,500 monthly benefit will only receive $1,185.

Why you shouldn't panic

While the coming depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund is troubling, the problem is neither new nor imminent. It's also important to note that the United States is the only country in the world that attempts to predict the 75-year longevity of its social insurance funds, which means we are in a position to do something about the anticipated shortfall. Over the next couple of decades, it is likely that our government will make relatively small changes to the Social Security program in order to make up the 21 percent anticipated shortfall that will occur once the Trust Fund has run dry.

However, it is smart for current workers to recognize that Social Security should not be heavily relied upon for a financially secure retirement.

2. The average Social Security retirement benefit is $1,360 per month

As of January, 2017, the average benefit for a retired beneficiary is $1,360 per month, which doesn't go very far if that is your only source of income. In addition, beneficiaries who are signed up for Medicare Part B (which is the Medicare medical insurance) will see $134 deducted from their Social Security benefit check for the Part B premium.

While very few retirees live solely on their Social Security benefits, these benefits do constitute at least half the income of 71 percent of single seniors and 48 percent of couples. And for a whopping 43 percent of singles and 21 percent of married couples, Social Security benefits represent 90 percent or more of total income.

Why you shouldn't panic

What you need to remember is that you have a great deal of control over how much of your budget your Social Security benefit will represent. If you diligently save for retirement, then receiving an "average" benefit of $1,360 will provide a nice financial cushion on top of your retirement portfolio. While $1,360 is tough to live on by itself, having it available on top of your necessary expenditures would be a wonderful supplement.

3. Cuts to Social Security benefits may be coming

President Trump promised during his campaign that there would be no cuts to current payments for Social Security or Medicare beneficiaries. However, although the White House has made it clear that current beneficiaries' payments are safe, it will not rule out the possibility of making cuts that will affect future beneficiaries. Some of the changes that have been proposed include:

  • Raise the full retirement age for workers who reach age 62 in 2023, gradually increasing it from the current age of 66 to age 69.
     
  • Change the formula for calculating benefits for retirees becoming newly eligible in 2023 in phases over 10 years. The changes would slightly increase benefits for below-average earners and slightly decrease benefits for above-average earners.
     
  • Beginning December 2018, change the calculation of the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to a chained consumer price index (CPI) calculation, which will reduce the amount of money beneficiaries receive in their annual COLA. The current formula for determining the COLA uses something called the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). The CPI-W is a useful index for tracking the inflation of all goods, but it does not take into account the fact that many consumers make substitutions when prices go up. (For instance, if the price of beef rises, many consumers will buy chicken or pork instead.) A chained CPI calculation takes these sorts of substitutions into account, so its inflation rate is calculated at approximately 0.3 percentage points lower than the CPI-W rate.
     
  • Eliminate the earnings test beginning in January 2019. This test reduces benefits for beneficiaries who are younger than Social Security's full retirement age (currently age 66), are currently receiving Social Security benefit payments, and have income from wages or self-employment that exceed $16,920 per year in 2017.
     
  • Eliminate federal income taxation of Social Security retirement benefits as of 2054 and later, phased in from 2045 to 2053.

Why you shouldn't panic

Although making cuts to future beneficiaries' payments is hardly something to cheer about, we do need to recognize that it is much more important to protect the benefits of current beneficiaries. Since current beneficiaries generally cannot go back to work or cut expenses, they are much more vulnerable to cuts in payments than current workers are. In fact, the proposed switch to a chained CPI calculation for COLA may be burdensome to current beneficiaries, since it has been proposed for December 2018, thereby affecting those who have already retired.

What current workers need to do is plan for their Social Security to be an addition to their retirement savings. Then, if these changes and cuts do come to pass, you will not be worried about losing important income.

4. High earners don't pay as much into Social Security

Social Security is paid for through a payroll tax of 6.2 percent for workers and 6.2 percent for their employers, making the total tax contribution 12.4 percent of gross income. However, workers and their employers do not pay Social Security taxes on earnings above $127,200.

While $127,200 is a pretty significant chunk of change, it does mean that very high earners get a break once they are earning that amount. The reasoning behind this earnings cap is to maintain the connection between contributions paid in and benefits received. Since Social Security benefits are paid progressively, lower-income beneficiaries receive a higher percentage of their pre-retirement income in benefits than do high-income beneficiaries. The more money that high-income earners pay into Social Security, the less of a return they see on their contributions.

The progressive nature of Social Security benefits is the reason why it is unlikely that there will ever be a complete elimination of this earnings cap, even though the program could certainly use the funds that such a cap elimination would represent. However, even if we were to increase the earnings cap to $229,500 — which would return taxation to the same level it was in the early 1980s — we could make a major dent in the coming benefits shortfall.

Why you shouldn't panic

Although raising taxes is never popular, there is some indication that our government is working to bring the earnings cap closer to early 1980s levels. In 2016, the earnings cap was set at $118,500, which was the same as the 2015 earnings cap. Raising it to $127,200 represents a 7 percent increase.

5. 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day

Social Security works pretty well when the ratio of workers to retirees is balanced. Unfortunately, the extra-big generation known as the baby boomers is putting the program out of whack. The 76 million members of that generation began reaching age 62 (the earliest you may take Social Security benefits) as of 2008, and they are just going to keep retiring — at a rate of 10,000 per day.

This huge retirement boom could potentially put an enormous burden on our Social Security program, especially considering the increased life expectancy of this generation as compared to their parents and grandparents.

Why you shouldn't panic

While it's true that approximately 10,000 baby boomers are going to be retiring every day until 2034 (when the last of the boomers will reach age 70, which is the latest you would want to start taking Social Security benefits), there is more to this story than just their retirement.

First, it's important to remember that we've known the boomers would be retiring en masse for quite some time. Policymakers began to plan as early as 1983, when Congress raised the full retirement age.

Second, the boomers are the workers who built up the Social Security Trust Fund, so they will be beneficiaries of the money they themselves contributed through taxes.

Finally, as of 2015, millennials had overtaken the boomers as the largest living generation in the U.S. With such a large group of young workers in the workforce, we should be able to handle the financial cost of 10,000 boomers retiring each day.

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