The Center's work on 'Social Security' Issues


New Chart Book Paints Picture of Disability Insurance

July 21, 2014 at 1:53 pm

The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing this Thursday on Social Security Disability Insurance (DI).  We’ve just released a new chart book about DI.  Its more than 20 figures illustrate the essential facts and dispel some common misperceptions about this vitally important program.

For example, the following graph shows how growth in DI’s benefit rolls has slowed sharply.

The growth in the number of DI beneficiaries in recent decades stems largely from well-known demographic factors.  These include the growth of the population; the aging of the baby boomers into their 50s and 60s, which are years of peak risk for disability; growth in women’s labor force participation, which makes women much more likely to earn insured status for DI; and the rise in Social Security’s full retirement age from 65 to 66.

Both demographic and economic pressures on DI are easing.  In recent months, growth in the number of DI beneficiaries has slowed to its lowest rate in 25 years.  Social Security’s actuaries project that the program’s costs will level off as the economy continues to mend and baby boomers move from the disability rolls to the retirement rolls.

DI costs are projected to exceed revenues, however, and the program’s trust fund needs to be replenished in 2016.  Unless Congress increases the share of the Social Security payroll tax devoted to DI, beneficiaries would then face a 20 percent cut in benefits.

Reallocation between the DI trust fund and Social Security’s much larger Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) fund is a traditional method of addressing shortfalls in one program, and Congress should do so to avoid a harsh and unacceptable cut in benefits for an extremely vulnerable group.

For the full chart book, click here.

Congress Needs to Boost Disability Insurance Share of Payroll Tax

July 17, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Congress should increase the share of the Social Security payroll tax that’s devoted to Disability Insurance (DI) and reduce the share allocated to Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI).  We explain in a new paper why that’s essential to avoid a 20 percent across-the-board cut in DI benefits in 2016, how Congress has reallocated payroll tax revenues many times in the past, and that reallocation has not been controversial.

The current Social Security tax is 6.2 percent of wages up to $117,000 in 2014, which both employers and employees pay.  Of this total, 5.3 percent of covered wages goes to the OASI trust fund, and 0.9 percent goes to the DI trust fund.

Traditionally, lawmakers have divided the total payroll tax between OASI and DI according to the programs’ respective needs.  Congress has reallocated payroll tax revenues many times — sometimes from OASI to DI, sometimes in the other direction — to maintain the necessary balance.

The current allocation reflects policymakers’ decision in 1994, when they last reallocated taxes between the programs.  The 1994 reallocations only partly mitigated the effects of the 1983 Social Security amendments, which slightly raised DI’s cost and cut DI’s share of the payroll tax.

Lawmakers expected that the 1994 reallocations would keep DI solvent until 2016.  Despite fluctuations in the meantime, current projections still anticipate that the trust fund will be depleted in 2016 as forecast.

DI’s anticipated trust fund depletion does not indicate that the program is out of control or that it’s “bankrupt;” that is, if the trust fund were depleted and policymakers took no action, the program could still pay about 80 percent of benefits.  But, at the same time, cutting benefits by one-fifth for an extremely vulnerable group of severely disabled Americans is unacceptable.

Ideally, Congress would address DI’s finances in the context of legislation to restore overall Social Security solvency, as we’ve previously pointed out.  But even if policymakers make progress toward a well-rounded solvency package before late 2016, which seems unlikely, any changes in DI benefits or eligibility would surely phase in gradually and hence do little to replenish the DI fund by 2016.  Consequently, reallocating payroll tax revenues between the two programs would still be necessary.

There is nothing novel or controversial in such a step, and failing to take it would be irresponsible.

Click here to read the full paper.

Just the Basics: Payroll Taxes

April 9, 2014 at 11:51 am

As Tax Day approaches, we’ve updated several backgrounders that explain how the federal government and states collect and spend tax dollars.  As policymakers and citizens weigh key decisions on how best to shape our future federal government, it’s helpful to examine where the dollars that comprise the budget come from and where they go.

The next in our series of revised “Policy Basics” backgrounders explains federal payroll taxes.

The federal government levies payroll taxes primarily on wages and self-employment income and uses most of the revenue to fund Social Security, Medicare, and other social insurance benefits.  In fiscal year 2013, federal payroll taxes generated $947 billion, or 34 percent of all federal revenues.  (When the Social Security tax was introduced in 1937, it accounted for 11 percent of federal revenues.)

Find out more about who pays payroll taxes and what they fund in our full paper.

Greenstein on the New Ryan Budget

April 1, 2014 at 5:09 pm

CBPP President Robert Greenstein just issued a statement on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new budget plan.  Here’s the opening.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new “Path to Prosperity” is, sadly, anything but that for most Americans.  Affluent Americans would do quite well.  But for tens of millions of others, the Ryan plan is a path to more adversity.

The budget documents that Chairman Ryan issued today laud his budget for promoting “opportunity,” even as his budget slashes Pell Grants to help low- and moderate-income students afford college by more than $125 billion over ten years and cuts the part of the budget that funds education and job training (non-defense discretionary funding) far below the already low sequestration levels.  The budget documents also claim to help the poor, even as the Ryan budget shreds key parts of the safety net; for example, it resurrects the draconian benefit cuts in SNAP (food stamps) that the House passed last fall and adds $125 billion of SNAP cuts on top of them.

The budget also swells the ranks of the uninsured by at least 40 million people.  It repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA), taking coverage away from the millions of people who have just attained it, and cuts Medicaid by $732 billion (by 26 percent by 2024) on top of the cuts from repealing the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.  Yet it offers no meaningful alternative to provide health coverage to the tens of millions of uninsured Americans.

That’s only a partial list of its cuts.  The budget cuts non-defense discretionary programs by $791 billion below the sequestration level, shrinking this part of the budget to less than half its share of the economy under President Reagan.  These cuts are entirely unspecified, as are more than $500 billion of cuts in entitlement programs.

Meanwhile, the budget aims to cut the top individual tax rate and the corporate income tax rate to 25 percent, eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, and repeal the ACA’s revenue-raising provisions.  These tax cuts would cost about $5 trillion over ten years, based on past analyses by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.  Yet the Ryan plan doesn’t identify a single tax break to close or narrow to cover the lost $5 trillion, even though his budget assumes no revenue losses overall.  And it ignores the hard fact that, in his recent tax reform plan, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp only lowered the top individual tax rate to 35 percent even after identifying scores of politically popular tax breaks to narrow or eliminate.

The Ryan budget is thus an exercise in obfuscation — failing to specify trillions of dollars that it would need in tax savings and budget cuts to make its numbers add up.  No one should take seriously its claim to balance the budget in ten years.

It’s also an exercise in hypocrisy — claiming to boost opportunity and reduce poverty while flagrantly doing the reverse.  Here’s just one example: Ryan has criticized some of the poor for not working enough and says that he wants to promote work and opportunity.  But his budget eliminates Pell Grants entirely for low-income students who have families to support, must work, and are attending school less than half time on top of their jobs.

Click here for the full statement.

SSI Should Be Strengthened, Not Cut

March 27, 2014 at 11:22 am

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s misleading review of the safety net attacks Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — an important program that provides cash income to seniors, the blind, and people with severe and long-lasting disabilities who have little income and few assets.  This vital program aids some of the poorest and most vulnerable Americans and, rather than attack it, policymakers should strengthen it.

In December 2013, 8.4 million people collected SSI:  2.1 million seniors age 65 or older, 4.9 million disabled adults age 18-64, and 1.3 million disabled children under age 18.  Until the deep recession caused a modest uptick, SSI participation had generally been flat or falling as a share of the population since at least the mid-1990s (see graph).

SSI benefits alone don’t lift recipients living independently out of poverty; the maximum benefits for individuals ($721 a month) and couples ($1,082, if both spouses qualify) are about three-fourths of the poverty level.  But SSI greatly reduces the number of people in extreme poverty and lessens the burden on other family members.  A Social Security Administration study found that, in 2010, the poverty rate (based on family income) of recipients would be 65 percent without counting SSI payments; the actual rate, including SSI, was 43 percent.  Most families with an SSI recipient remained below 150 percent of the poverty threshold.  SSI benefits fall when recipients have other income (or live in a Medicaid facility or with relatives who provide support), so the average payment is just $529 a month.

Because SSI participants are elderly or have severe disabilities, it’s no surprise that relatively few of them work, even though program rules allow and encourage them to do so.  Nevertheless, nearly one-third of SSI recipients age 18-64, and three-fifths of elderly beneficiaries 65 or older, have worked enough — at least one-fourth of their adult lives — to qualify for Social Security benefits.  And two-thirds of children with disabilities who receive SSI and live in two-parent families — and one-third of those in single-parent families — have a working parent.

Severe disability in childhood — exacerbated by poverty — hampers adult outcomes (see here, here, and here), and about two-thirds of child beneficiaries reaching age 18 continue to qualify for SSI based on disability.  It’s not appropriate, as Ryan’s report implicitly does, to compare statistics like high school graduation rates and job-holding for young people who received SSI as children with statistics for those who didn’t.  The two groups differ in fundamental ways.  Similarly, there’s no basis for calling the adult struggles of those who received SSI as children an “effect” of their benefit receipt, as Ryan does.  Their underlying health problems coupled with their low incomes play an important role in their academic achievement and adult employment prospects, and at least one study suggests that childhood SSI benefits improve adult outcomes.

Special SSI program rules — like the Student Earned Income Exclusion — are designed to encourage a successful transition to adulthood for child beneficiaries, and the agency is rigorously testing even more targeted efforts.  Early results are mixed, but if the pilots are successful, such interventions would require more funding, not less, for this special group of young adults.