Republican Mitch McConnell, Majority Leader of the US Senate, once said that members of the Millennial Generation think they have a better chance of seeing a UFO than their Social Security checks. Indeed, the 2016 Transamerica retirement study reveals that
Gen-X (1965 to 1985) is worried too. When asked if Social Security would be there for them in their old age, a staggering 86 percent said they weren’t sure it would be.
If the media is to be believed, the future of Social Security is bleak. A large part of the uncertainty is due to gridlock in Congress. Congress did cut benefits in 2015, but it did so very quietly as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act. The point is that tinkering with Social Security, in even a minor way, is viewed as something akin to stepping on the electrified third rail in a subway tunnel. Nobody wants to take a chance, so nothing substantive gets done.
If no real changes are made, the latest statistics indicate that the Social Security program will start to run short of money starting in 2034. At that point, retirees would receive only 77 percent of the benefits they are owed. That’s still better than nothing, of course, but more than half of Americans rely on Social Security for 50 percent of their retirement income. It’s safe to say that millions of Americans will suffer if Congress continues to kick the can down the road.
Here’s one more noteworthy set of numbers. The worker-to-beneficiary ratio was 3.2 to 1 in 1975. It dropped to 2.8 to 1 in 2016. Flash forward to 2040. Estimates suggest that the worker-to-beneficiary ratio will be only 2.1 to 1. That means fewer workers will be paying into the program as Americans continue to age at faster rates. According to AARP, ten thousand Americans turn sixty-five every day!
Congress Has Many Options!
There are sensible options available to Congress, if it chooses to act. None of them will be painless for the American people, but some are less odious than others. Some options include the following:
Raise payroll taxes…
At present, the Social Security payroll tax is 12.4 percent. The self-employed pay the whole thing while employers match half of the payment for their employees. Gradually raising the payroll tax to 14.98 percent would keep the program solvent.
Raise the wage cap…
Wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax in 2017 were $127,200. After you reached that number, you no longer had to pay into Social Security. Eliminating or substantially raising the wage cap would greatly bolster the solvency of the program.
Cut Social Security benefits…
Changing the formulas used to determine monthly checks, thereby reducing the benefit amounts, would help shore up the Social Security program.
Tax 100 percent of Social Security income…
The maximum amount of taxable Social Security income in 2017 was 85 percent. The burden of this option would land mostly on affluent retirees. Retirees with lower incomes would not feel the pinch as much, if at all.
Reduce cost-of-living adjustments…
Some sources say that pursuing just this single option would reduce the projected deficit in the Social Security trust fund by 66 percent. However, inflation is a real concern. At present, the inflation rate is about 2 percent per year. That’s still substantial when you consider that FDIC-insured fixed income investments like certificates of deposit pay much less than that. Inflation is not expected to soar like it did in the 1970s during the OPEC oil embargo, at least not any time soon. However, over time, inflation slowly eats away at your purchasing power. Reducing or eliminating COLA is a recipe for disaster for senior citizens.
Raise the full retirement age…
We’d see about a 33 percent contribution toward reducing the shortfall if full retirement age was gradually raised from sixty-seven to sixty-nine by 2022. Congress put a similar graduated increase into effect starting with dates of birth in 1955 and going to 1959, whereby you had to add two months to your full retirement age from 1955 to 1959. In 1959, full retirement age had risen to ten months after your birthday in your full retirement year. In 1954, you reached full retirement at sixty-six on your birthday. You reached your full retirement age of sixty-seven on your birthday if you were born in 1960 or later.
The most likely future prognosis for Social Security is that it will not go away, but changes will be made to shore up the program. Our best recommendation for you is not to give in to the temptation to take your retirement benefits early just because you’re afraid of future changes. If you’re reading this guide, you’re very likely in your fifties or early sixties. Any changes that do come will most likely not impact you to any great extent, if at all. If you’re from a younger generation, there should be optimism that a sophisticated combination of options can guarantee that Social Security will still play a pivotal role in funding your retirement.