The Center's work on 'Reform Proposals' 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.

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.

Greenstein on President Obama’s New Budget

March 4, 2014 at 1:47 pm

CBPP President Robert Greenstein has issued a statement on the President’s fiscal year 2015 budget:

President Obama’s new budget is a solid blueprint that would reduce deficits, alleviate poverty, and boost investment in areas needed for future economic growth, such as infrastructure, education, and research.

On the deficit front, the budget confounds the recent predictions of some pundits by including, rather than eschewing, deficit reduction.  While offsetting the costs of its new investment initiatives by cutting spending and scaling back tax breaks, the budget goes further by reducing deficits enough to put federal debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) on a declining path.  With about $1.7 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years (excluding the savings from winding down operations in Afghanistan), the budget would reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio to 69 percent in 2024.

As previously announced, the budget doesn’t include the proposal in the President’s budget last year to switch to the “chained Consumer Price Index” in calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security and other programs.  It does, however, retain the $400 billion in Medicare savings in last year’s budget, including about $60 billion in Medicare beneficiary reductions (through increases in premiums for affluent beneficiaries, increases in some co-payments, and changes affecting Medigap coverage).

On the poverty-fighting front, the budget features an important proposal to boost the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-income workers who are not living with minor children — a measure many analysts across the political spectrum believe holds considerable promise for reducing poverty and also increasing labor-force participation, including among young minority men.  Single low-wage men and women are the one group of Americans whom the federal tax code literally taxes into — or deeper into — poverty.  The Obama proposal, which builds on a long bipartisan tradition of support for the EITC, would substantially address that problem.

No one should declare this budget “dead on arrival,” for two reasons.  First, under the Murray-Ryan agreement of last year, both parties have agreed on the total amount available for appropriated programs this year, and the Obama budget includes program-by-program requests that hit that total.  Consequently, the budget’s appropriations requests will likely play an important role as the Appropriations Committees craft the annual funding bills this year.

Second, with no big budget showdowns or deadlines looming this year, 2014 likely won’t be a year of significant budgetary action beyond the appropriations bills.  But 2015 may well be.  Policymakers likely will seek to negotiate another budget deal to ease the scheduled sequestration budget cuts for 2016 and beyond and also may consider tax reform and other measures.  Both the new Obama budget and the budget proposal that House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan will unveil in a few weeks will offer dueling frameworks for a year-long debate on where fiscal and program policy should go, in advance of larger decisions next year.

The vision reflected in the Obama budget will provide a much sounder course than the one we’ll likely see in the Ryan budget.  That’s because the Obama budget curbs lower-priority spending and unproductive special-interest tax breaks in order to make investments that the nation needs for future prosperity, reduce poverty and better reward low-paid work, and give many young children a better chance of success, while reducing mid-term and long-term deficits at the same time.

Don’t Forget What Happened When Obama First Proposed Chained CPI

February 24, 2014 at 3:17 pm

Most media coverage of the President’s decision not to include the “chained CPI” for cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security and other retirement programs in his 2015 budget has left out a key point to understanding the announcement.

When the President was preparing his 2014 budget early last year, Republican leaders strongly urged him to include the chained CPI, and he did.  But House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan then failed to put the proposal in his budget, which included no Social Security savings (and fewer Medicare savings over ten years than the Obama budget).

More importantly, Representative Greg Walden, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called the President’s chained CPI proposal “a shocking attack on seniors,” attacked the President for “trying to balance the budget on the backs of seniors,” and signaled that Republican challengers in 2014 would attack Democratic incumbents over it.  He and other Republicans also noted that their budget — the Ryan budget — did not include the proposal.

To be sure, House Speaker John Boehner distanced himself from Walden’s remarks.  But the message was clear: after urging the President to include the chained CPI in his budget, Republicans left it out of theirs, and various Republican challengers were likely to use it to portray Democrats as seeking to cut Social Security (and themselves as the defenders of Social Security beneficiaries).

Coming on top of the Ryan budget, the Walden statement had a toxic impact on congressional Democrats.  That combination may have been one of the most important political developments that ultimately brought us to the Administration’s announcement.