What a Real Tax Reform Could Look Like – II: Social Security

A.  Introduction

The previous post on this blog looked at what a true tax reform could look like, addressing issues pertaining to corporate and individual income taxes.  This post will look at what should be done for Social Security and the taxes that support it.  Our federal tax system involves more than just income taxes.  Social Security taxes are important, and indeed many individuals pay more in Social Security taxes than they do in individual income taxes.  Overall, Social Security taxes account for just over a quarter of total federal revenues collected in FY2017, and are especially important for the poor and middle classes.  With a total tax of 12.4% for Social Security (formally half paid by the employee and half by the employer, but in reality all ultimately paid by the employee), someone in the 10% income tax bracket is in fact paying tax at a 22.4% rate on their wages, someone in a 15% bracket is actually paying 27.4%, and so on up to the ceiling on wages subject to this tax of $128,400 in 2018.  They also pay a further 2.9% tax on wages for Medicare (with no ceiling), but this post will focus just on the Social Security side.

And as is well known, the Social Security Trust Fund is forecast to be depleted by around 2034 if Congress does nothing.  Social Security benefits would then be automatically scaled back by about 22%, to a level where the then current flows going into the Trust Fund would match the (cut-back) outflows.  This would be a disaster for many.  Congress needs to act.

A comprehensive tax reform thus should include measures to ensure the Social Security Trust Fund remains solvent, and is at a minimum able, for the foreseeable future, to continue to pay its obligations in full.  Also, and as will be discussed below, Social Security benefit payments are embarrassingly small.  Cutting them further is not a “solution”.  And despite their small size, many now depend on Social Security in their old age, especially as a consequence of the end of most private company defined benefit pension schemes in recent decades.  We really need to look at what can be done to strengthen and indeed expand the Social Security safety net.  The final section below will discuss a way to do that.

B.  Remove the Ceiling on Wages Subject to Social Security Tax

As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the Social Security Trust Fund is forecast to run out by around 2034 not because, as many presume, baby boomers will now be retiring, nor because life expectancies are turning out to be longer.  Both of these factors were taken into account in 1983, when following recommendations made by a commission chaired by Alan Greenspan, Social Security tax rates were adjusted and other measures taken to ensure the Trust Fund would remain solvent for the foreseeable future.  Those changes were made in full awareness of when the baby boomers would be retiring – they had already been born.  And while life expectancy has been lengthening, what matters is not whether life expectancy has been growing longer or not, but rather whether it has been growing to be longer than what had earlier been forecast when the changes were made in 1983.  And it hasn’t:  Life expectancy has turned out to be growing more slowly than earlier forecast, and for some groups has actually been declining.  In itself, this would have lengthened the life of the Social Security Trust Fund over what had been forecast.  But instead it was shortened.

Why is it, then, that the Trust Fund is now forecast to run out by around 2034 and not much later?  As discussed in that earlier post, the Greenspan Commission assumed that wage income inequality would not change going forward.  At the time (1983) this was a reasonable assumption to make, as income inequality had not changed much in the post World War II decades leading up to the 1980s.  But from around 1980, income distribution worsened markedly following the Reagan presidency.  This matters.  Wages above a ceiling (adjusted annually according to changes in average nominal wages) are exempted from Social Security taxes.  But with the distribution of wages becoming increasingly skewed (in favor of the rich) since 1980, adjusting the ceiling according to changes in average wages will lead to an increasing share of wages being exempted from tax.  An increasing share of wage income has been pulled into the earnings of those at the very top of the income distribution, so an increasing share of wages has become exempt from Social Security taxes.  As a direct consequence, the Social Security Trust Fund did not receive the inflows that had been forecast.  Thus it is now forecast to run out by 2034.

Unfortunately, we cannot now go back in time to fix the rates and what they covered to reflect the consequences of the increase in inequality.  Thus what needs to be done now has to be stronger than what would have been necessary then.  Given where we are now, one needs to remove the ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security tax altogether to ensure system solvency.  If that were done, the depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund (with all else unchanged, including the benefit formulae) would be postponed to about 2090.  Given the uncertainties over such a time span (more than 70 years from now), one can say this is for the foreseeable future.

The chart at the top of this post (taken from the earlier blog post on this issue) shows the paths that the Social Security Trust Fund to GDP ratio would take.  If nothing is done, the Trust Fund would be depleted by around 2034 and then turn negative (not allowed under current law) if all benefits were continued to be paid (the falling curve in black).  But if the ceiling on wages subject to tax were removed, the Trust Fund would remain positive (the upper curves in blue, where the one in light blue incorporates the impact of the resulting benefit changes under the current formulae, as benefits are tied to contributions).

As discussed in that earlier blog post, the calculations indicate the Social Security Trust Fund then would remain solvent to a forecast year of about 2090.  That is over 70 years from now, and the depletion at that time is largely driven by the assumption (by the Social Security demographers) on how fast life expectancy is forecast to rise in the future.  This could again be over-estimated.

Lifting the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax would also be equitable:  The poor and middle classes are subject to the 12.4% Social Security tax on all of their wages; a rich person should be similarly liable for the tax on all of his or her earnings.  And I cannot see the basis for any argument that a rich person making a million dollars a year cannot afford the tax, while a poor person can.

C.  Apply the Social Security Tax to All Forms of Income, Not Just Wages, and Then Raise Benefits

But I would go further.  In the modern era, there is no reason why the Social Security tax should be applied solely to wage earnings, while earnings from wealth are not taxed at all.  As one of the basic principles of taxation noted in the previous post on tax reform, all forms of income should be taxed similarly, and not with differing rates applied to one form (e.g. 12.4% on wages) as compared to another (e.g. 0% on income from wealth).

Broadening the base would allow, if nothing else is changed, for a reduction in the rate to produce the same in revenues.  We can calculate roughly what that lower rate would be.  Making use of IRS data for incomes reported on the Form 1040s in 2015 (the most recent year available), one can calculate that if Adjusted Gross Income (line 37 of Form 1040) was used as the base for the Social Security tax rather than just wages, the Social Security tax rate could be cut from 12.4% to 8.6% to generate the same in revenues.  That is, taxing all reported income (including income from wealth) at an 8.6% rate (instead of taxing just wages at 12.4%) would generate sufficient revenues for the Social Security Trust Fund to remain solvent for the foreseeable future.  This would be a more than 30% fall in the taxes on wages, but also, of course, a shift to those who also earn a substantial share of their income from wealth.

[Note:  There would also be second-order effects as Social Security benefits paid are tied to the taxes paid over the highest 40 years of an individual’s earnings, there is some progressivity in the formulae used, and taxes on all earnings rather than just on wages will shift the share of the taxes paid towards the rich.  But the impact of these second-order effects would be relatively small.  Also, the direction of the impact would be that the break-even tax rate could be cut a bit further to allow for the same to be paid out in benefits, or a bit more in benefits could be paid for the same tax rate.  But given that the impact would be small, we will leave them out of the calculations here.]

The 8.6% tax on all forms of income would generate the revenues needed to keep the Social Security Trust Fund solvent at the benefit levels as defined under current law.  But Social Security benefit payments are embarrassingly small.  Using figures for September 2017 from the Social Security Administration, the average benefit paid (in annualized terms) for all beneficiaries is just $15,109, for retired workers it is $16,469, and for those on disability it is $12,456.  These are not far above (and for disability indeed a bit below) the federal poverty guideline level of $13,860 in 2017 for a single individual.  And the average benefit levels, being averages, mean approximately half of the beneficiaries are receiving less.

Yet even at such low levels, Social Security benefits account for 100% of the income of 20% of beneficiaries aged 65 or higher; for 90% or more of the incomes of 33% of those aged beneficiaries, and 50% or more of the incomes of 61% of those aged beneficiaries (data for 2014; see Table 9.A1).  And for those aged 65 or older whose income is below the federal poverty line, Social Security accounts for 100% of the income of 50% of them, for 90% or more of the income of 74% of them, and for 50% or more of the income for 93% of them (see Table 9.B8).  The poor are incredibly dependent on Social Security.

Thus we really should be looking at a reform which would allow such benefit payments to rise.  The existing levels are too low to serve as an effective safety net in a country where defined benefit pension plans have largely disappeared, and the alternative approach of IRAs and 401(k)s has failed to provide adequate pensions for many if not most workers.

Higher benefits would require higher revenues.  To illustrate what might be done, suppose that instead of cutting the Social Security tax rate from the current 12.4% to a rate of 8.6% (which would just suffice to ensure the Trust Fund would remain solvent at benefit levels as defined under current law), one would instead cut the tax rate just to 10.0%.  This would allow average Social Security benefits to rise by 15.8% (= 10.0%/8.6%, but based on calculations before rounding).  One can work out that based on the distribution of Social Security benefit payments in 2015 (see table 5.B6 of the 2016 Annual Statistical Supplement), that if benefits were raised by 5% for the top third of retirees receiving Social Security and by 10% for the middle third, then the extra revenues would allow us to raise the average benefit levels by 45% for the bottom (poorest) third:

Annual Social Security Benefits

Avg in 2015

% increase

New

Difference

   Bottom Third of Retirees

$8,761

45%

$12,733

   $3,972

   Middle Third of Retirees

$16,010

15%

$18,411

   $2,401

   Top Third of Retirees

$23,591

5%

$24,771

   $1,180

Overall for Retirees

$16,044

15.8%

$18,574

   $2,531

This would make a significant difference to those most dependent in their old age on Social Security.  The poorest third of retirees receiving Social Security received (in December 2015 and then annualized) a payment of just $8,761 per year.  Increasing this by 45% would raise it to $12,733.  While still not much, it would be an increase of almost $4,000 annually.  And for a married couple where both had worked and are now receiving Social Security, the benefits would be double this.  It would make a difference.

D.  Conclusion

Conservatives have long been opposed to the Social Security system (indeed since its origin under Roosevelt), arguing that it is a Ponzi scheme, that it is unsustainable, and that the only thing we can do is to scale back benefits.  None of this is true.  Rather, Social Security has proven to be a critically important support for the incomes of the aged.  An astonishingly high share of Americans depend on it, and its importance has only increased with the end of defined benefit pension schemes for most American workers.

But there are, indeed, problems.  Due to the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax, and the sharp increase in inequality starting in the 1980s under Reagan and continuing since, an increasing share of wages in the nation have become exempt from this tax.  As a consequence, and if nothing is done, the Trust Fund is now forecast to run out in 2034.  This would trigger a scaling back of the already low benefits by 22%.  This would be a disaster for many.

Lifting the ceiling on wages, so that all wages are taxed equally, would resolve the Trust Fund solvency issue for the foreseeable future (to a forecast year of about 2090).  Benefits as set under the current formulae could then be maintained.  Furthermore, if the base for the tax were extended to all forms of income (including income from wealth), and not limited just to wages, benefits as set under current formulae could be sustained with the tax rate cut from the current 12.4% to a new rate of just 8.6%.

But as noted above, current benefits are low.  One should go further.  Cutting the rate to just 10%, say, would allow for a significant increase in benefits.  Focussing the increase on the poorest, who are most dependant on Social Security in their old age, a rate of 10% applied to all forms of income would allow benefits to rise by 5% for the top third of retirees, by 15% for the middle third, and by a substantial 45% for the bottom third.  This would make a real difference.