The Future of Social Security

Senate Special Committee on Aging February 3, 2005

Executive Summary


Any Social Security reform plan should be designed to meet three fundamental objectives--ensuring Social Security's long-term fiscal sustainability, raising national savings, and improving the system's generational equity:

  • Reform should ensure Social Security's long-term fiscal sustainability. The first goal of reform should be to close Social Security's financing gap over the lifetimes of our children and beyond. The only way to do so without burdening tomorrow's workers and taxpayers is to reduce Social Security's long-term cost.
  • Reform should raise national savings. As America ages, the economy will inevitably have to transfer a rising share of real resources from workers to retirees. This burden can be made more bearable by increasing the size of tomorrow's economy. The surest way to do this is to raise national savings, and hence ultimately productivity growth. Without new savings reform is a zero-sum game.
  • Reform should improve Social Security's generational equity. As currently structured, Social Security contributions offer each new generation of workers a declining value ("moneysworth") Reform must not exacerbate--and ideally it should improve--the generational inequity underlying the current system.

Meeting these objectives will require hard choices and trade-offs. There is no free lunch. Policymakers and the public need to ask the following questions to assess whether reforms honestly face up to the Social Security challenge--or merely shift and conceal the cost:

  • Does reform rely on trust-fund accounting? Trust-fund accounting obscures the magnitude of Social Security's financing gap by assuming that trust-fund surpluses accumulated in prior years can be drawn down to defray deficits incurred in future years. However, the trust funds are bookkeeping devices, not a mechanism for savings. The special issue U.S. Treasury bonds they contain simply represent a promise from one arm of government (Treasury) to satisfy claims held by another arm of government (Social Security.) They do not indicate how these claims will be satisfied or whether real resources are being set aside to match future obligations. Thus, their existence does not, alone, ease the burden of paying future benefits. The real test of fiscal sustainability is whether reform closes Social Security's long-term annual gap between its outlays and its dedicated tax revenues.
  • Does reform rely on hiking FICA taxes? Hiking payroll taxes to meet benefit obligations is neither an economically sound nor a generationally equitable option. The burden will fall most heavily on lower and middle-income workers and on future generations. Younger Americans in particular will be skeptical of any plan that purports to improve their retirement security by increasing their tax burden and by further lowering the return on their contributions.
  • Does reform rely on new debt? Paying for promised benefits--or financing the transition to a more funded Social Security system--by issuing new debt defeats a fundamental purpose of reform. To the extent that reform relies on debt financing, it will not boost net savings and may result in a decline. Without new savings, any gain for the Social Security system must come at the expense of the rest of the budget, the economy, and future generations. Resort to borrowing is ultimately a tax increase for our kids.
  • Does reform rely on outside financing? Ideally, reform should achieve all necessary fiscal savings within the Social Security system itself. Unrelated tax hikes and spending cuts may never be enacted, or if enacted, may easily be neutralized by other measures, now or in the future. Unless the American public sees a direct link between sacrifice and reward, the sacrifice is unlikely to happen.
  • Does reform use prudent assumptions? There must be no fiscal alchemy. The success of reform should not depend upon rosy projections of future economic growth, presumed budget surpluses or lofty rates of return on privately owned accounts. All projections regarding private accounts should be based on realistic assumptions, a prudent mix of equity and debt, and realistic estimates of new administrative costs.

While fixing Social Security's problems, reform must be careful to preserve what works. Social Security now fulfills a number of vital social objectives. Policymakers and the public need to ask the following questions to assess whether reform plans would continue to fulfill them:

  • Does reform keep Social Security mandatory? The government has a legitimate interest in seeing that people do not under-save during their working lives and become reliant on the safety net in retirement. Moving toward personal ownership need not and should not mean "pivatizing" Social Security. Any new personal accounts should be a mandatory part of the Social Security system. Choice is not important in a compulsory social insurance program whose primary function is to protect people against poor choices.
  • Does reform preserve Social Security's full range of insurance protection? Social Security does more than write checks to retirees. It also pays benefits to disabled workers, widows, widowers, and surviving children. A reformed system should continue to provide insurance protection that is at least equal to what the current system offers.
  • Does reform maintain Social Security's progressivity? While individual equity ("moneysworth") is important, so too is social adequacy. Social Security's current benefit formula is designed so that benefits replace a higher share of wages for low-earning workers than for high-earning ones. Under any reform plan, total benefits, including benefits from personal accounts, should remain as progressive as they are today.
  • Does reform protect participants against undue risk? Under the current system, workers face the risk that future Congresses will default on today's unfunded pay-as-you-go benefit promises. While reducing this "political risk," personal account reforms should be careful to minimize other kinds of risk, such as investment risk, inflation risk, and longevity risk--that is, the risk of outliving ones assets.

If we reform Social Security today, the changes can be gradual and give everybody plenty of time to adjust and prepare. If we wait much longer, change will come anyway--but it is more likely to be sudden and arrive in the midst of economic and political crisis.