The Social Security Crisis Gets Personal

Stuart Butler is vice president for domestic and economic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

The debate over Social Security reform so far has centered on the concern that, as the number of retirees balloons, the program won’t be able to pay its promised benefits. That certainly is a crisis that must be addressed. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Social Security’s finances were in great shape. Would reform still be necessary?

Yes, because of a bigger crisis that has nothing to do with the program’s solvency. It’s a personal crisis affecting millions of American working families: The program designed for the 1930s is shortchanging them and eroding their ability to save.

The much talked-about financing crisis is coming because of the huge number of baby boomers who will start drawing benefits in a few years. There won’t be enough money coming in from payroll taxes to pay full benefits. Those with their heads in the sand say there will still be enough to pay about 80% of benefits, so why worry? But that means a 20% cut in benefits.


Some say why not just raise payroll taxes, especially on those earning more than $90,000 a year, who have “maxed-out” on their Social Security payroll taxes? But although these more affluent workers typically have savings and will not depend on Social Security for retirement, many are small-business owners. Hitting them now with a new tax of more than 12% on part of their earnings means less money to invest in their businesses.

But the personal crisis in Social Security is even more worrisome -- and it’s deeply unfair.

As the Social Security system itself has aged, payroll taxes have grown relentlessly and the return on those taxes has fallen dramatically. When Social Security began, the payroll tax was just 2% of income. Now it’s 12.4%. Today, the average male worker about to retire will typically get just a 1.27% return on his lifetime of taxes -- less than he’d get from a savings account. That’s bad enough, but the younger you are, the worse it will get. A 25-year-old worker can expect a return of minus-0.64% -- he loses money.

Some retirement “security” program. Imagine what Congress would say if a private company was taking in billions of dollars from millions of working Americans and then giving them back less money in retirement.

But there’s more bad news. As payroll taxes have taken a bigger and bigger bite out of paychecks, lower-income working Americans have less and less money left to save. It’s not surprising that savings have plummeted in lower-income neighborhoods while credit card debt has soared. The Social Security system is sucking money out of every paycheck, which reduces savings, and it eventually returns too little back to the community.

That is a serious crisis holding back the economic improvement of lower-income neighborhoods. The system needs changing so that more money is saved and stays in these communities.

Worst of all, many people pay taxes all their lives and get literally nothing. Because Social Security is only an annuity system, paying monthly checks, those with the lowest life expectancy receive the least back. That’s particularly bad news for African American men, who typically die younger than whites and so get shortchanged. Indeed, many African American males now in the their 30s or younger will never recoup the money they put into Social Security. And if they die before retirement, which unfortunately is all too common among African American men, often what they’ve paid into the system is lost to their heirs.

Don’t worry, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus say. They point out that because African Americans are more likely to be poor and more likely to become disabled they tend to get a better return from Social Security. That’s because the rate of return on contributions is higher for low-income earners and because the disabled can collect once they are injured, which is often well before retirement age.

Of course, their argument is a bit like saying that because African Americans are more likely than other average Americans to be on welfare or unemployed, they shouldn’t care about taxes on the middle class. Talk about encouraging low expectations!

This personal crisis in Social Security is why we need structural reform, not just financing fixes. Raising the retirement age or increasing the payroll tax might reduce the financing gap, but those steps will make Social Security an even worse deal and compound the personal crisis.

That’s why enabling Americans to put at least some of their existing payroll taxes into a personal account is so important. It would allow workers to get a better return (they could hardly get worse) on their money, and it would put control of the money into the hands of workers.