Social Security Will Not Go Broke

By Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA's public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers.
September 24, 2021 Updated: September 24, 2021

Here we go again. Another round of scare stories about the impending doom of Social Security. Headlines such as this one in my local newspaper—”Social Security Moves Closer to Bankruptcy”—have many of my readers on edge.

These kinds of headlines were prompted by a report recently released from the Social Security Board of Trustees that said the nation’s bedrock social insurance program is one year closer to insolvency. It said that if no changes are made to the program by 2034, the system would be unable to pay full benefits. That’s one year earlier than the 2035 date in last year’s report.

My emails clearly indicate that news has many of my readers saying, “What do we do now?” But frankly, it’s got me saying, “Ho-hum. Been there, done that!” Without trying to be too flippant, let me explain.

My hunch is that most senior citizens reading this column have been paying attention to Social Security issues for the past 10 years—maybe 20 at the most. But I’ve been paying attention to Social Security for the last 50 years. And I’m also a pretty good student of its entire 80-year history. I can’t even begin to count how many headlines I’ve seen over the years that predicted Social Security’s bankruptcy. Of course, not a single one of them has ever come true. And these latest headlines won’t come true either.

Why? Just go back to the trustee’s report. You’ll note it says the system faces insolvency “if no changes are made to the program by 2034.” And here’s the deal: Congress will implement Social Security reforms long before we get to 2034. Anyone who knows Social Security history knows we’ve been down this road many times before. The last time was in 1983, when the system was just five years away from insolvency. Then-President Ronald Reagan formed the National Commission on Social Security Reform and Congress implemented many of their proposals (such as increasing the full retirement age).

So, sometime in the not-too-distant future, we’ll likely see another such Social Security reform commission. And how will they change Social Security? Listed below are eight commonly mentioned reforms. Four involve cutting benefits and four deal with raising revenues. Next to each is a number expressed as a percentage. The number indicates the portion of Social Security’s long-range deficit that would be eliminated if the proposal became law. Also listed is a brief argument for and against each proposal.

So, why not see if you can “save Social Security”? If you can find solutions totaling 100 percent or more, you’ve kept the system solvent for future generations!

Proposals That Would Reduce Benefits

No. 1: Raise the retirement age to 70 by 2060—a 68 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: People are living longer, healthier lives and with enough lead time, they would be able to plan for the delay in receipt of their benefits.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: Would you really want to work until you are 70 years old? Employers will be faced with higher health care costs for older workers.

No. 2: Reduce cost of living adjustments (COLAs) paid to Social Security beneficiaries by 1/2 of 1 percent—a 25 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: Economists believe the current formula overstates inflation for older adults.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: I’ve never met one older adult who believes the economists. Also, COLA reductions are cumulative. The longer you live, the more you will suffer financially.

No. 3: Reduce benefits by 5 percent for all future retirees —a 35 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: All retirees should share responsibility for shoring up Social Security.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: Lower-income beneficiaries couldn’t afford the reduction.

No. 4: Means test: reduce benefits to those making more than $100,000— a 50 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: Ensures Social Security is paid only to people who need it the most.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: Would turn Social Security into a welfare program.

Proposals That Would Raise Revenues

No. 1: Raise Social Security payroll tax by 1/2 of 1 percent—a 53 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: The Social Security tax hasn’t been increased in 40 years. This would be a modest price to pay for long-range Social Security stability.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: Extra tax burden would discourage savings and investment.

No. 2: Tax all earnings (current payroll tax base is $142,800)—a 73 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: It impacts only higher-income people who can afford it.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: It would be a huge tax burden for wealthy people.

No. 3: Make folks pay income tax on all Social Security benefits (currently only a portion is taxed)— a 16 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: All other pensions are fully taxed.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: It would affect middle-income taxpayers the most.

No. 4: Require all state/local government workers to pay into Social Security—an 11 percent fix.

Q: Why is this a good idea? A: All working Americans should pay for Social Security.

Q: Why is this a bad idea? A: Would jeopardize many well-run government employee pension plans.

And remember, these are just eight of hundreds of ideas for Social Security reform. So, my bottom-line message is this: Don’t worry. Social Security will be reformed long before the system goes belly up!

Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA's public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers.