Contrary to What AP Tells You, Social Security Is NOT a Main Driver of the Country's Long-term Budget Problem


The NYT ran a short AP piece on Social Security and "why it matters." The piece wrongly told readers that Social Security is "a main driver of the government's long-term budget problems." This is not true. Under the law, Social Security can only spend money that is in its trust fund. If the trust fund is depleted then full benefits cannot be paid. The law would have to be changed to allow Social Security to spend money other than the funds designated for the program and in that way contribute to the deficit.

The piece also plays the "really big number" game, telling readers:

"the program faces huge shortfalls that get bigger and bigger each year.In 2034, the program faces a $500 billion shortfall, according to the Social Security Administration. In just five years, the shortfalls add up to more than $3 trillion.

"Over the next 75 years, the shortfalls add up to a staggering $139 trillion. But why worry? When that number is adjusted for inflation, it comes to only $40 trillion in 2016 dollars — a little more than twice the national debt."

Since this is talking about shortfalls projected to be incurred over a long period of time, it would be helpful to express the shortfall relative to the economy over this period of time, not debt at a point in time. This is not hard to do, since there is a table right in the Social Security trustees report that reports the projected shortfall as being equal to 0.95 percent of GDP over the 75-year forecasting horizon. By comparison, the costs of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan came to around 1.6 percent of GDP at their peaks in the last decade.

The piece also gets the reason for the projected shortfall wrong. It tells readers:

"In short, because Americans aren't having as many babies as they used to. That leaves relatively fewer workers to pay into the system. Immigration has helped Social Security's finances, but not enough to fix the long-term problems.

"In 1960, there were 5.1 workers for each person getting benefits. Today, there are about 2.8 workers for each beneficiary. That ratio will drop to 2.1 workers by 2040."

Actually, the drop in the birth rate and the declining ratio of workers to beneficiaries had long been predicted. The reason that the program's finances look worse than when the Greenspan commission put in place the last major changes in 1983 is the slowdown in wage growth and the upward redistribution of wage income so that a larger share of wage income now goes untaxed.

In 1983, only 10 percent of wage income was above the payroll tax cap. Today it is close to 18 percent. This upward redistribution explains more than 40 percent of projected shortfall over the next 75 years.

It is also worth noting that the loss in wage income for most workers to upward redistribution swamps the size of any tax increases that could be needed to maintain full funding for the program. While AP wants to get people very worried over possible tax increases in future years, it would rather they ignore the policies (e.g. trade, Fed policy, Wall Street policy, patent policy) that have taken money out of the pockets of ordinary workers and put it in the hands of the rich.

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