The original Social Security Act and the current version of the Act, as amended encompass several social welfare or social insurance programs. The larger and better known initiatives of the program are:
Social Security in the United States is a social insurance program funded through dedicated payroll taxes called Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). Tax deposits are formally entrusted to Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, or Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund, Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund or the Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund. The main part of the program is sometimes abbreviated OASDI (Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance) or RSDI (Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance). When initially signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, the term Social Security covered unemployment insurance as well. The term, in everyday speech, is used to refer only to the benefits for retirement, disability, survivorship, and death, which are the four main benefits provided by traditional private-sector pension plans. In 2004 the U.S. Social Security system paid out almost $500 billion in benefits. By dollars paid, the U.S. Social Security program is the largest government program in the world and the single greatest expenditure in the federal budget, with 20.9% for social security and 20.4% for Medicare/Medicaid, compared to 20.1% for military expenditure. Social Security is currently the largest social insurance program in the U.S., constituting 37% of government expenditure and 7% of GDP, and is currently estimated to keep roughly 40% all Americans age 65 or older, out of poverty. The Social Security Administration is headquartered in Woodlawn, Maryland just to the west of Baltimore.
Largely because of the rise of neoliberalism, privatization of the Social Security system became a major political issue for more than three decades during the presidencies of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. (See Social Security debate (United States).)
The Social Security Act was drafted by President Roosevelt's committee on economic security, under Edwin Witte, and passed by Congress as part of the New Deal. The act was an attempt to limit what were seen as dangers in the modern American life, including old age poverty, unemployment, and the burdens of widows and fatherless children. By passing this act, President Roosevelt became the first president to advocate the protection of the elderly.
Most women and minorities were excluded from the benefits of unemployment insurance and old age pensions. Employment definitions reflected typical white male categories and patterns. Job categories that were not covered by the act included workers in agricultural labor, domestic service, government employees, and many teachers, nurses, hospital employees, librarians, and social workers. The act also denied coverage to individuals who worked intermittently. These jobs were dominated by women and minorities. For example, women made up 90% of domestic labor in 1940 and two-thirds of all employed black women were in domestic service. Exclusions exempted nearly half the working population. Nearly two-thirds of all African Americans in the labor force, 70 to 80% in some areas in the South, and just over half of all women employed were not covered by Social Security. At the time, the NAACP protested the Social Security Act, describing it as “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”
Some have suggested that this discrimination resulted from the powerful position of Southern Democrats on two of the committees pivotal for the Act’s creation, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee. Southern congressmen supported Social Security as a means to bring needed relief to areas in the South that were especially hurt by the Great Depression but wished to avoid legislation which might interfere with the racial status quo in the South. The solution to this dilemma was to pass a bill that both included exclusions and granted authority to the states rather than the national government (such as the states' power in Aid to Dependent Children). Others have argued that exclusions of job categories such as agriculture were frequently left out of new social security systems worldwide because of the administrative difficulties in covering these workers.
Social Security reinforced traditional views of family life. Women generally qualified for insurance only through their husband or their children. Mothers’ pensions (Title IV) based entitlements on the idea that mothers would be unemployed.
The inherent discrimination in the system can also be seen with regard to Aid to Dependent Children. Since this money was allocated to the states to distribute, some localities assessed black families as needing less money than white families. These low grant levels made it impossible for African American mothers to not work: one requirement of the program. Some states also excluded children born out of wedlock, an exclusion which affected African American women more than white women. One study determined that 14.4% of eligible white individuals received funding, but only 1.5% of eligible black individuals received these benefits.
Two Supreme Court rulings affirmed the constitutionality of the Social Security Act.
In 1940, benefits paid totaled $35 million. These rose to $961 million in 1950, $11.2 billion in 1960, $31.9 billion in 1970, $120.5 billion in 1980, and $247.8 billion in 1990 (all figures in nominal dollars, not adjusted for inflation). In 2004, $492 billion of benefits were paid to 47.5 million beneficiaries.
Creation of the Social Security Trust Fund
The amendments established a trust fund for any surplus funds. The managing trustee of this fund is the Secretary of the Treasury. The money could be invested in both non-marketable and marketable securities.
The move toward family protection
Calls for reform of Social Security emerged within a few years of the 1935 Act. Even as early as 1936, some believed that women were not getting enough support. Worried that a lack of assistance might push women back into the work force, these individuals wanted Social Security changes that would prevent this. In an effort to protect the family, therefore, some called for reform which tied women's aid more concretely to their dependency on their husbands. Others expressed apprehension about the complicated administrative practices of Social Security. Concerns about the size of the reserve fund of the retirement program, emphasized by a recession in 1937 led to further calls for change.
These amendments, however, avoided the question of the large numbers of workers in excluded categories. Instead, the amendments of 1939 made family protection a part of Social Security. This included increased federal funding for the Aid to Dependent Children and raised the maximum age of children eligible to receive money under the Aid to Dependent Children to 18. The amendment added wives, elderly widows, and dependent survivors of covered male workers to those who could receive old age pensions. These individuals had previously been granted lump sum payments upon only death or coverage through the Aid to Dependent Children program. If a married wage-earning woman’s own benefit was worth less than 50% of her husband’s benefit, she was treated as a wife, not a worker. If a woman who was covered by Social Security died, however, her dependents were ineligible for her benefits. Since support for widows was dependent on the husband being a covered worker, African American widows were severely underrepresented and unaided by these changes.
In order to assure fiscal conservatives who worried about the costs of adding family protection policies, the benefits for single workers were decreased and lump-sum death payments were abolished.
Social Security payroll taxes are collected under authority of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). The payroll taxes are sometimes even called "FICA taxes."
In the original 1935 law the benefit provisions were in Title II of the Act (which is why Social Security is sometimes referred to as the "Title II" program.) The taxing provisions were in a separate title, Title VIII. There is a deep reason for this, having to do with the constitutionality of the law (see discussion of the Constitutionality of the 1935 Act).
As part of the 1939 Amendments, the Title VIII taxing provisions were taken out of the Social Security Act and placed in the Internal Revenue Code. Since it wouldn't make any sense to call this new section of the Internal Revenue Code "Title VIII," it was renamed the "Federal Insurance Contributions Act."
The payroll taxes collected for Social Security are of course taxes, but they can also be described as contributions to the social insurance system that is Social Security. Hence the name "Federal Insurance Contributions Act." FICA refers to the tax provisions of the Social Security Act, as they appear in the Internal Revenue Code.
In 1956, the tax rate was raised to 4.0% (2.0% for the employer, 2.0% for the employee) and disability benefits were added. Also in 1956, women were allowed to retire at 62 with benefits reduced by 25%. Widows of covered workers were allowed to retire at 62 without the reduction in benefits.
In 1962, the changing role of the female worker was acknowledged when benefits of covered women could be collected by dependent husbands, widowers, and children. These individuals, however, had to be able to prove their dependency.
Medicare was added in 1965 by the Social Security Act of 1965, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" program. Social Security was changed to withdraw funds from the independent "Trust Fund" and put it into the General Fund for additional congressional revenue.
In 1965, the age at which widows could begin collecting benefits was reduced to 60. Widowers were not included in this change. When divorce, rather than death, became the major cause of marriages ending, divorcées were added to the list of recipients. Divorcées over the age of 65 who had been married for at least 20 years, remained unmarried, and could demonstrate dependency on their ex-husbands received benefits.
The government adopted a unified budget in the Johnson administration in 1968. This change resulted in a single measure of the fiscal status of the government, based on the sum of all government activity. The surplus in Social Security trust funds offsets the total debt, making it appear much smaller than it otherwise would.
In October 1972, a $5 billion piece of Social Security legislation was enacted which expanded the Social Security program. For example, minimum monthly benefits of individuals employed in low income positions for at least 30 years were raised. Increases were also made to the pensions of 3.8 million widows and dependent widowers.
These amendments also established the Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Immigrants who had never paid into the system became eligible for SSI benefits when they reached age 65. SSI is not a Social Security benefit, but a welfare program, because the elderly and disabled poor are entitled to SSI regardless of work history. Likewise, SSI is not an entitlement, because there is no right to SSI payments.
The impact of Social Security on women and minorities was analyzed during the early 1970s as both groups became increasingly vocal. Minorities noted that lower incomes and shorter life expectancies made their Social Security benefits insufficient. Women complained about the gender biases in Social Security. For example, many feminists argued that women continued to receive pensions through their relationships to male covered workers, a status which did not reflect the changing role of women in American culture. The 1975 Quadrennial Council on Social Security proposed many ideas to extend the coverage of Social Security. Yet concern over the economy and the financial outlook of Social Security dominated this time period.
The 1970s and the negative financial outlook
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, during the phase-in period of Social Security, Congress was able to grant generous benefit increases because the system had perpetual short-run surpluses. Congressional amendments to Social Security took place in even numbered years (election years) because the bills were politically popular, but by the late 1970s, this era was over. For the next three decades, projections of Social Security's finances would show large, long-term deficits, and in the early 1980s, the program flirted with immediate insolvency. From this point on, amendments to Social Security would take place in odd numbered years (years that were not election years) because Social Security reform now meant tax increases and benefit reductions. Social Security became known as the "Third Rail of American Politics." Touching it meant political death.
Several effects came together in the years following the 1972 amendments which rapidly changed the outlook on Social Security's long-term financial picture from positive to problematic. By the 1970s, the phase-in period, during which workers were paying taxes but few were collecting benefits, was largely over, and the ratio of elderly population to the working population was increasing. These developments brought questions about the capacity of the long term financial structure based on a pay-as-you-go program.
During the Carter administration, the economy suffered double-digit inflation, coupled with very high interest rates, oil shortages, high unemployment and slow economic growth. Productivity growth in the United States had declined to an average annual rate of 1%, compared to 3.2% during the 1960s. There was also a growing federal budget deficit which increased to $66 billion. The 1970s are described as a period of stagflation, meaning economic stagnation coupled with price inflation, as well as higher interest rates. Price inflation (a rise in the general level of prices) creates uncertainty in budgeting and planning and makes labor strikes for pay raises more likely.
These underlying negative trends were exacerbated by a colossal mathematical error made in the 1972 amendments establishing the COLAs. The mathematical error which overcompensated for inflation was particularly detrimental given the double-digit inflation of this period, and the error led to benefit increases that were nowhere near financially sustainable.
The high inflation, double-indexing, and lower than expected wage growth was financial disaster for Social Security.
To combat the declining financial outlook, in 1977 Congress passed and President Carter signed legislation fixing the double-indexing mistake. This amendment also altered the tax formulas to raise more money. With these changes, President Carter remarked, "Now this legislation will guarantee that from 1980 to the year 2030, the Social Security funds will be sound. This turned out to be not the case. The financial picture declined almost immediately and by the early 1980s, the system was again in crisis.
The 1983 Amendments
The National Commission on Social Security Reform (NCSSR), chaired by Alan Greenspan, was empaneled to investigate the long-run solvency of Social Security. The 1983 Amendments to the SSA were based on the NCSSR's Final Report. Report of the National Commission on Social Security Reform. Retrieved on 2008-03-15.. The NCSSR recommended enacting a six-month delay in the COLA and changing the tax-rate schedules for the years between 1984 and 1990. It also proposed an income tax on the Social Security benefits of higher-income individuals. This meant that benefits in excess of a household income threshold, generally $25,000 for singles and $32,000 for couples (the precise formula computes and compares three different measures) became taxable. These changes were important for generating revenue in the short term.
Also of concern was the long-term prospect for Social Security because of demographic considerations. Of particular concern was the issue of what would happen when people born during the post-World War II baby boom retired. The NCSSR made several recommendations for addressing the issue. Under the 1983 amendments to Social Security, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, a previously-enacted increase in the payroll tax rate was accelerated, additional employees were added to the system, the full-benefit retirement age was slowly increased, and up to one-half of the value of the Social Security benefit was made potentially taxable income.
The 1983 Amendments and the Social Security Trust Fund
The 1983 Amendments also included a provision to exclude the Social Security Trust Fund from the unified budget (in political jargon, it was taken “off-budget”). This provision also provided for the exemption of Social Security and portions of the Medicare trust funds from any general budget cuts beginning in 1993. This change was one way of trying to protect Social Security funds for the future.
As a result of these changes, particularly the tax increases, the Social Security system began to generate a large short-term surplus of funds, intended to cover the added retirement costs of the "baby boomers." Congress invested these surpluses into special series, non-marketable U.S. Treasury securities held by the Social Security Trust Fund. Under the law, the government bonds held by Social Security are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. Because the government had adopted the unified budget during the Johnson administration, this surplus offsets the total fiscal debt, making it look much smaller. There has been significant disagreement over whether the Social Security Trust Fund has been saved, or has been used to finance other government programs and other tax cuts.
The Supreme Court decided, in Flemming v. Nestor (1960), that "entitlement to Social Security benefits is not a contractual right". In that case, Ephram Nestor, a Bulgarian immigrant to the United States who made contributions for covered wages for the statutorily required "quarters of coverage" was nonetheless denied benefits after being deported in 1956 for being a member of the Communist party.
The case specifically held:
2. A person covered by the Social Security Act has not such a right in old-age benefit payments as would make every defeasance of "accrued" interests violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 608-611. (a) The noncontractual interest of an employee covered by the Act cannot be soundly analogized to that of the holder of an annuity, whose right to benefits are based on his contractual premium payments. Pp. 608-610. (b) To engraft upon the Social Security System a concept of "accrued property rights" would deprive it of the flexibility and [363 U.S. 603, 604] boldness in adjustment to ever-changing conditions which it demands and which Congress probably had in mind when it expressly reserved the right to alter, amend or repeal any provision of the Act. Pp. 610-611. 3. Section 202 (n) of the Act cannot be condemned as so lacking in rational justification as to offend due process. Pp. 611-612. 4. Termination of appellee's benefits under 202 (n) does not amount to punishing him without a trial, in violation of Art. III, 2, cl. 3, of the Constitution or the Sixth Amendment; nor is 202 (n) a bill of attainder or ex post facto law, since its purpose is not punitive. Pp. 612-621.
In simple terms, the decision means that Congress can cut benefits at any time.
A worker who starts benefits before normal retirement age has their benefit reduced based on the number of months before normal retirement age they start benefits. This reduction is 5/9 of 1% for each month up to 36 and then 5/12 of 1% for each additional month. This formula gives an 80% benefit at age 62 for a worker with a normal retirement age of 65, a 75% benefit at age 62 for a worker with a normal retirement age of 66, and a 70% benefit at age 62 for a worker with a normal retirement age of 67.
A worker who delays starting retirement benefits past normal retirement age earns delayed retirement credits that increase their benefit until they reach age 70. These credits are also applied to their widow(er)'s benefit. Children and spouse benefits are not affected by these credits.
The normal retirement age for widow(er) benefits shifts the year-of-birth schedule upward by two years, so that those widow(er)s born before 1940 have age 65 as their normal retirement age.
Note that, since the passage of the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act, in 2000, the spouse and children of a worker who has reached normal retirement age can receive benefits on the worker's record whether the worker is receiving benefits or not. Thus a worker can delay retirement without affecting spousal and children's benefits. The worker may have to begin receipt of benefits, to allow the spousal/children's benefits to begin, and then subsequently suspend his/her own benefits in order to continue the postponement of benefits in exchange for an increased benefit amount.
The worker must be unable to continue in his or her previous job and unable to adjust to other work, with age, education, and work experience taken into account; furthermore, the disability must be long-term, lasting 12 months, expected to last 12 months, resulting in death, or expected to result in death. As with the retirement benefit, the amount of the disability benefit payable depends on the worker's age and record of covered earnings.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) uses the same disability criteria as the insured social security disability program, but SSI is not based upon insurance coverage. Instead, a system of means-testing is used to determine whether the claimants' income and net worth fall below certain income and asset thresholds.
Severely disabled children may qualify for SSI. Standards for child disability are different from those for adults.
Disability determination at the Social Security Administration has created the largest system of administrative courts in the United States. Depending on the state of residence, a claimant whose initial application for benefits is denied can request reconsideration or a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. Such hearings sometimes involve participation of a vocational expert (VE) or medical expert (ME), both independent, unbiased witnesses, as called upon by the ALJ.
Reconsideration involves a re-examination of the evidence, and the opportunity for a hearing before a (non-Attorney at law) disability hearing officer. The hearing officer then issues a decision in writing, providing justification for his/her finding. If the claimant is denied at the reconsideration stage, (s)he may request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. In some states, SSA has implemented a pilot program that eliminates the reconsideration step and allows claimants to appeal an initial denial directly to an Administrative Law Judge.
Because the number of applications for Social Security is very large (approximately 650,000 applications per year), the number of hearings requested by claimants often exceeds the capacity of Administrative Law Judges. The number of hearings requested and availability of Administrative Law Judges varies geographically across the United States. In some areas of the country, it is possible for a claimant to have a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge within 90 days of his/her request. In other areas, waiting times of 18 months are not uncommon.
After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issues a decision in writing. The decision can be Fully Favorable (the ALJ finds the claimant disabled as of the date that (s) he alleges in the application through the present), Partially Favorable (the ALJ finds the claimant disabled at some point, but not as of the date alleged in the application; OR the ALJ finds that the claimant was disabled but has improved), or Unfavorable (the ALJ finds that the claimant was not disabled at all). Claimants can appeal Partially Favorable and Unfavorable decisions to Social Security's Appeals Council, which is in Virginia. The Appeals Council does not hold hearings; it accepts written briefs. Response time from the Appeals Council can range from 12 weeks to more than 3 years.
If the claimant disagrees with the Appeals Council's decision, (s)he can appeal the case in the federal district court for his/her jurisdiction. As in most federal court cases, an unfavorable district court decision can be appealed to the appropriate appellate circuit court, and an unfavorable appellate court decision can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
In 2004, Urban Institute economists C. Eugene Steuerle and Adam Carasso created a Web-based Social Security benefits calculator. Using this calculator it is possible to estimate net Social Security benefits (i.e., estimated lifetime benefits minus estimated lifetime FICA taxes paid) for different types of recipients. In the book, Democrats and Republicans - Rhetoric and Reality, Joseph Fried used the calculator to create graphical depictions of the estimated net benefits of men and women who were at different wage levels, single and married (with stay-at-home spouses), and retiring in different years. These graphs vividly show that generalizations about Social Security benefits may be of little predictive value for any given worker, due to the wide disparity of net benefits for people at different income levels and in diffferent demographic groups. For example, the graph below (Figure 168) shows the impact of wage level and retirement date on a male worker. As income goes up, net benefits get smaller - even negative. However, the impact is much greater for the future retiree (in 2045) than for the current retiree (2005). The male earning $95,000 per year and retiring in 2045 is estimated to lose over $200,000 by participating in the Social Security system.
In the next graph (Figure 165) the depicted net benefits are averaged for people turning age 65 anytime during the years 2005 through 2045. (In other words, the disparities shown are not related to retirement.) However, we do see the impact of gender and wage level. Because women tend to live longer, they generally collect Social Security benefits for a longer time. As a result, they get a higher net benefit, on average, no matter what the wage level.
The next image (Figure 166) shows estimated net benefits for married men and women at different wage levels. In this particular scenario it is assumed that the spouse has little or no earnings and, thus, will be entitled to collect a spousal retirement benefit. According to Fried:
"Two significant factors are evident: First, every column in Figure 166 depicts a net benefit that is higher than any column in Figure 165. In other words, the average married person (with a stay-at-home spouse) gets a greater benefit per FICA tax dollar paid than does the average single person - no matter what the gender or wage level. Second, there is only limited progressivity among married workers with stay-at-home spouses. Review Figure 166 carefully: The net benefits drop as the wage levels increase from $50,000 to $95,000; however, they increase as the wage levels grow from $5,000 to $50,000. In fact, net benefits are lowest for those earning just $5,000 per year.
The last graph shown (Figure 167) is a combination of Figures 165 and 166. In this graph it is very clear why generalizations about the value of Social Security benefits are meaningless. At the $95,000 wage level a married person could be a big winner - getting net benefits of about $165,000. On the other hand, he could lose an estimated $152,000 in net benefits if he remains single. Altogether, there is a "swing" of over $300,000 based upon the marriage decision (and the division of earnings between the spouses). Even more inequitable, perhaps, is the disparity between the high net benefits of the married person earning $95,000 ($165,152) versus the relatively low net benefits of the man or woman earning just $5,000 ($30,025 or $41,890, depending on gender). In other words, the high earner, in this scenario, gets a far greater return on his FICA tax investment than does the low earner.
In the book, How Social Security Picks Your Pocket, other factors affecting Social Security net benefits are identified: Generally, people who work for more than 35 years get a lower net benefit - all other factors being equal. People who don't live long after retirement age get a much lower net benefit. (These people include men, the obese, and people with health problems related to environment or heredity.) Finally, people who derive a high percentage of income from non-wage sources get high Social Security net benefits because they appear to be "poor," when they are not. The progressive benefit formula for Social Security is blind to the income a worker may have from non-wage sources, such as spousal support, dividends and interest, or rental income.
Importantly, most parents apply for Social Security numbers for their dependent children in order to include them on their income tax returns as a dependent. Everyone filing a tax return, as taxpayer or spouse, must have a Social Security Number or Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) since the IRS is unable to process returns or post payments for anyone without an SSN or TIN.
The FICA taxes are imposed on all workers and self-employed persons. Employers are required to report wages for covered employment to Social Security for processing Forms W-2 and W-3. There are some specific groups which are not required to pay into the Social Security program (discussed below). Internal Revenue Code provisions section 3101 imposes payroll taxes on individuals and employer matching taxes. Section 3102 mandates that employers deduct these payroll taxes from workers' wages, at the worker's request (form W-4), before they are paid. Generally, the payroll tax is imposed on everyone in employment earning "wages" as defined in 3121 of the Internal Revenue Code, and also taxes net earnings from self-employment
The Social Security Administration's authority to make benefit payments as granted by Congress extends only to its current revenues and existing Trust Fund balance, i.e., redemption of its holdings of Treasury securities. Therefore, Social Security's ability to make full payments once annual benefits exceed revenues depends in part on the federal government's ability to make good on the bonds that it has issued to the Social Security trust funds. The federal government's ability to repay Social Security, in turn, is contingent on fiscal policies taken today (which have tended to increase deficits and the percent of the budget spent on interest and principal payments) and in the future.
Overall, these agreements serve two main purposes. First, they eliminate dual Social Security taxation, the situation that occurs when a worker from one country works in another country and is required to pay Social Security taxes to both countries on the same earnings. Second, the agreements help fill gaps in benefit protection for workers who have divided their careers between the United States and another country.
The following countries have signed totalization agreements with the SSA (and the date the agreement became effective):
The Social Security Administration admits that the Social Security Act does not require a person to have a Social Security Number to live and work in the United States, nor does it require an SSN simply for the purpose of having one.
The Privacy Act of 1974 was in part intended to limit usage of the Social Security number as a means of identification. Paragraph (1) of subsection (a) of section 7 of the Privacy Act, an uncodified provision, states in part:
However, paragraph (2) of subsection (a) of section 7 of the Privacy Act provides in part:
The exceptions under section 7 of the Privacy Act include the Internal Revenue Code requirement that social security numbers be used as taxpayer identification numbers for individuals.
According to most projections, the Social Security trust fund will begin drawing on its Treasury Notes toward the end of the next decade (around 2018 or 2019), at which time the repayment of these notes will have to be financed from the general fund. At some time thereafter, variously estimated as 2041 (by the Social Security Administration) or 2052 (by the Congressional Budget Office), the Social Security Trust Fund will have exhausted the claim on general revenues that had been built up during the years of surplus. At that point, current Social Security tax receipts would be sufficient to fund 74 or 78% of the promised benefits, according to the two respective projections. The Social Security Trustees suggest that either the payroll tax could increase to 16.41 percent in 2041 and steadily increased to 17.60 percent in 2081 or a cut in benefits by 25 percent in 2041 and steadily increased to an overall cut of 30 percent in 2081.
The Social Security Administration projects that the demographic situation will stabilize. The cash flow deficit in the Social Security system will have leveled off as a share of the economy. This projection has come into question. Some demographers argue that life expectancy will improve more than projected by the Social Security Trustees, a development that would make solvency worse. Some economists believe future productivity growth will be higher than the current projections by the Social Security Trustees. In this case, the Social Security shortfall would be smaller than currently projected.
("Social Security Underestimates Future Life Spans, Critics Say") The Census Bureau projection is that the longer life spans projected for 2075 by the Social Security Administration will be reached in 2050. Other experts, however, think that the past gains in life expectancy cannot be repeated, and add that the adverse effect on the system's finances may be partly offset if health improvements induce people to stay in the workforce longer.
Actuarial science, of the kind used to project the future solvency of social security, is by nature inexact. The SSA actually makes three predictions: optimistic, midline, and pessimistic (until the late 1980s it made 4 projections). The Social Security crisis that was developing prior to the 1983 reforms resulted from midline projections that turned out to be too optimistic. It has been argued that the overly pessimistic projections of the mid to late 1990s were partly the result of the low economic growth (according actuary David Langer) assumptions which resulted in the projected exhaustion date being pushed back (from 2028 to 2042) with each successive Trustee's report. During the heavy-boom years of the '90s, the midline projections were too pessimistic. Obviously, projecting out 75 years is a significant challenge and, as such, the actual situation might be much better or much worse than predicted.
The Social Security Advisory Board has on three occasions since 1999 appointed a Technical Advisory Panel to review the methods and assumptions used in the annual projections for the Social Security trust funds. The most recent report of the Technical Advisory Panel, released in June 2008 with a copyright date of October 2007, includes a number of recommendations for improving the Social Security projections.
Increased spending for Social Security will occur at the same time as increases in Medicare, as a result of the aging of the baby boomers. One projection illustrates the relationship between the two programs:
On July 22, 2008 the Social Security Administration introduced a new online benefits estimator A worker who has enough Social Security credits to qualify for benefits, but who is not currently receiving benefits on his or her own Social Security record and who is not a Medicare beneficiary, can obtain an estimate of the retirement benefit that will be provided, for different assumptions about age at retirement.
The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) (codified in the Internal Revenue Code) imposes a Social Security withholding tax equal to 6.20% of the gross wage amount, up to but not exceeding the Social Security Wage Base ($94,200 for the year 2006; $97,500 for 2007; and $102,000 for 2008). The same 6.20% tax is imposed on employers. For each calendar year for which the worker is assessed the FICA contribution, the SSA credits those wages as that year's covered wages. The income cutoff is adjusted yearly for inflation and other factors.
A separate payroll tax of 1.45% of an employee's income is paid directly by the employer, and an additional 1.45% deducted from the employee's paycheck, yielding a total tax rate of 2.90%. There is no maximum limit on this portion of the tax. This portion of the tax is used to fund the Medicare program, which is primarily responsible for providing health benefits to retirees.
The combined tax rate of these two federal programs is 15.30% (7.65% paid by the employee and 7.65% paid by the employer).
For self-employed workers (who technically are not employees and are deemed not to be earning "wages" for Federal tax purposes), the self-employment tax, imposed by the Self-Employment Contributions Act of 1954, codified as Chapter 2 of Subtitle A of the Internal Revenue Code, , is 15.3% of "net earnings from self-employment. In essence, a self-employed individual pays both the employee and employer share of the tax, although half of the self-employment tax (the "employer share") is deductible when calculating the individual's federal income tax.
If an employee has overpaid payroll taxes by having more than one job or switching jobs during the year, the excess taxes will be refunded when the employee files his federal income tax return. Any excess taxes paid by employers, however, are not refundable to the employers.
Supporters of Social Security say that despite its regressive tax formula, Social Security benefits are calculated using a progressive benefit formula that replaces a much higher percentage of low-income workers' pre-retirement income than that of higher-income workers (although these low-income workers pay a higher percentage of their pre-retirement income). They also point to numerous studies that show that, relative to high-income workers, Social Security disability and survivor benefits paid on behalf of low-income workers more than offset any retirement benefits that may be lost because of shorter life expectancy. Other research asserts that survivor benefits, allegedly an offset, actually exacerbate the problem because survivor benefits are denied to single individuals, including widow(er)s married less than nine months (except in certain situations), divorced widow(er)s married less than 10 years, and co-habiting or same-sex couples, unless they are legally married in their state of residence. Unmarried individuals tend to be less wealthy and minorities.
According to a 1936 pamphlet on the Social Security website, the federal government promised the following maximum level of taxation for Social Security, "... beginning in 1949, twelve years from now, you and your employer will each pay 3 cents on each dollar you earn, up to $3,000 a year. That is the most you will ever pay."
However, according to the Social Security website, by the year 2008, the tax rate was 6.2% each for the employer and employee, and the maximum income level that was subject to the tax was $102,000 raising the bar to $6,324 maximum contribution by both employee and employer (total $12,468).
Williams wrote, "Had Congress lived up to those promises, where $3,000 was the maximum earnings subject to Social Security tax, controlling for inflation, today's $50,000-a-year wage earner would pay about $700 in Social Security taxes, as opposed to the more than $3,000 that he pays today."
According to the Social Security website, "The tax rate in the original 1935 law was 1% each on the employer and the employee, on the first $3,000 of earnings. This rate was increased on a regular schedule in four steps so that by 1949 the rate would be 3% each on the first $3,000. The figure was never $,1400, and the rate was never fixed for all time at 1%."
Two broad categories of private pension plans are "defined benefit pension plans" and "defined contribution pension plans." Of these two, Social Security is more similar to a defined benefit pension plan. In a defined benefit pension plan, the benefits ultimately received are based on some sort of pre-determined formula (such as one based on years worked and highest salary earned). Defined benefit pension plans generally do not include separate accounts for each participant. By contrast, in a defined contribution pension plan each participant has a specific account with funds put into that account (by the employer or the participant, or both), and the ultimate benefit is based on the amount in that account at the time of retirement. Some have proposed that the Social Security system be modified to provide for the option of individual accounts (in effect, to make the system, at least in part, more like a defined contribution pension plan). Specifically, on February 2, 2005, President George W. Bush made Social Security a prominent theme of his State of the Union Address. He described the Social Security system as "headed for bankruptcy", and outlined, in general terms, a proposal based on partial privatization. Critics responded that privatization would worsen the program's solvency outlook and would require huge new borrowing. See Social Security debate (United States).
Both "defined benefit" and "defined contribution" private pension plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which requires employers to provide minimum levels of funding to support "defined benefits" pensions. The purpose is to protect the workers from corporate mismanagement and outright bankruptcy, although in practice many private pension funds have fallen short in recent years. In terms of financial structure, the current Social Security system is analogous to an underfunded "defined benefit" pension ("underfunded" meaning not that it is in trouble, but that its "savings" are not enough to pay future benefits without collecting future tax revenues).
In the 1937 U.S. Supreme Court case of Helvering v. Davis, the Court examined the constitutionality of Social Security when George Davis of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston sued in connection with the Social Security tax. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts first upheld the tax. The District Court judgment was reversed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. Commissioner Guy Helvering of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (now the Internal Revenue Service) took the case to the Supreme Court, and the Court upheld the validity of the tax.
During the 1930s President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the midst of promoting the passage of a large number of social welfare programs under the New Deal and the High Court struck down many of those programs (such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Recovery Act) as unconstitutional. After having a significant portion of his enactments struck down by the Supreme Court, Roosevelt proposed legislation that would have expanded the Supreme Court to fifteen members. This would have allowed him to nominate six additional members (under certain conditions) which would be more likely to uphold his enactments with his members in place. Believing that its autonomy and independence were significantly threatened by the legislation, the Supreme Court's tone seemed to change significantly. The Court allowed many New Deal programs very similar to ones they had previously struck down to go through, including Social Security. (see also The switch in time that saved nine)
When Helvering v. Davis was argued before the Court, the larger issue of whether or not the old-age insurance portion of Social Security is constitutional was not decided. The case was limited to whether or not the payroll tax was a suitable use of Congress's taxing power. Despite this, no serious challenges regarding the system's constitutionality are now being litigated, and Congress's spending power may be more coextensive, as shown in cases like South Dakota v. Dole during the Reagan Administration.
In February 2006, the Social Security Administration received several reports of an email message being circulated addressed to “Dear Social Security Number And Card owner” and purporting to be from the Social Security Administration. The message informs the reader “that someone illegally is using your Social Security number and assuming your identity” and directs the reader to a website designed to look like Social Security’s Internet website.
“I am outraged that someone would target an unsuspecting public in this manner,” said Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart. “I have asked the Inspector General to use all the resources at his command to find and prosecute whoever is perpetrating this fraud.” See Press Release
Once directed to the phony website, the individual is reportedly asked to confirm his or her identity with “Social Security and bank information.” Specific information about the individual’s credit card number, expiration date and PIN is then requested. “Whether on our online website or by phone, Social Security will never ask you for your credit card information or your PIN” Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart reported.
Social Security Administration Inspector General O’Carroll recommended people always take precautions when giving out personal information. “You should never provide your Social Security number or other personal information over the Internet or by telephone unless you are extremely confident of the source to whom you are providing the information,” O’Carroll said. See Press Release