If you are 35 years old today and expect to begin receiving Social Security benefits at age 62, you may be in for a surprise. In 2037, benefits for retirees may be reduced by about a fourth and continue at that reduced level thereafter.
A System in Jeopardy
Why is the durability of the Social Security system in question? According to the 2010 Social Security Trustees' Report,* the program is in temporary cash-flow deficit this year and next, with permanent deficits beginning in 2015.
While today's retirees can probably count on receiving their Social Security benefits, future generations may not be so fortunate. This is largely due to increased longevity, costs of medical technology, and the increasing retirement of the baby boom generation (individuals born during 1946-64).
Mounting Pressure on the Federal Budget
Since substantial numbers of the baby boomers began to retire in 2008, Social Security surpluses have dwindled rapidly. Combined with the effects of the economic slowdown, Social Security spending will exceed projected tax collections this year and next and in every year starting with 2015. In turn, net Treasury payments to the Social Security system will greatly increase pressure on the federal budget.
Here's why: When Social Security income exceeds its expenses, the surplus is retained by the Treasury and used to meet the government's non-Social Security expenses. For example, the recent surpluses in Social Security led to annual surpluses that went to finance B-2 bombers, farm subsidies, savings and loan bailouts, and other general federal expenditures. In return for borrowing these funds, the Treasury issues special bonds to the Social Security trust fund.
At the end of 2009, the Social Security trust fund held more than $2.5 trillion in bonds. When Social Security's expenses exceed its income, theoretically these bonds can be redeemed to meet current obligations. Beginning this year, the Treasury will need to begin redeeming these bonds. And the government will have to find the cash to repay the money it borrowed.
The Treasury Department's Options
The Treasury has three options:
- Sell bonds to the public-Whether the public has sufficient appetite to buy additional bonds at an average rate of $400 billion per year, even in the inflated dollars of the 2030s, remains to be seen.
- Raise taxes — Policymakers can raise taxes to provide the Treasury with the necessary money. More directly, they could raise Social Security taxes, reducing the need for bond redemptions.
- Print money — This would increase the inflation rate. Because Social Security benefit increases are tied to changes in the Consumer Price Index, inflation would result in even higher benefit costs and the need to redeem bonds more rapidly, not to mention other deleterious economic effects.
What Policymakers Might Do
Rather than trying, probably unsuccessfully, to redeem the trillions of dollars in bonds accumulated over several decades, policymakers would likely enact a package of revenue increases and benefit reductions that would bring Social Security's income and outgo into balance. The following big ticket items are likely to be included in such a package:
- Increased Social Security Taxes-Tax increases are easy to explain, and most workers pay the additional amounts through withholding from wages and salaries.
- Reductions in COLAs-Social Security's cost-of-living adjustments were delayed six months by legislation in 1983. They could be delayed again, reduced, or frozen temporarily. Many economists believe that the Consumer Price Index, which is the basis for Social Security's COLAs, overstates inflation in any case, although the government has taken steps to reduce this overstatement.
- A Higher Normal Retirement Age (NRA)-Social Security reform legislation in 1983 raised the NRA gradually, from 65 for workers born before 1938, to 67 for those born after 1959. Congress has already demonstrated that it can raise the NRA, and there is no reason to believe that it will stop at age 67.
- Other Revenue Options-Lastly, other alternatives under discussion include using general revenues to sustain the Social Security system, or prefunding future benefits with personal savings accounts or direct investments of the trust funds.**
Now Is the Time to Begin Planning for Retirement
It certainly appears that the Social Security program will not be as generous for tomorrow's retirees as it is for today's. People who hoped to be enjoying their retirement after 2015 should probably start saving more now if they want to maintain a comfortable standard of living after retiring. Usually, the necessary amounts needed for retirement cannot be saved during the last few working years; it is recommended that they be accumulated over a much longer period of time.
Even if the bonds can be redeemed without any problems, Social Security is expected to have serious problems beginning in 2037 and will need to change. Today's workers need to know that the future of Social Security is uncertain so they can design their retirement plans accordingly.
See your New York Life insurance professional to learn how our insurance and financial products can help you prepare for your future.
This article is for information purposes only. Neither New York Life nor its insurance professionals are in the business of offering legal, tax, or accounting advice. Please consult with your professional advisors to learn more about the future of Social Security and your Social Security benefits.
* All financial projections are based on the intermediate estimates of the 2010 Social Security Trustees' Report. **Social Security's Future-FAQs, http://www.ssa.gov/qa.htm
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