If you’ve been following the debate over a so-called “grand bargain” to cut the long-term deficit, you may have been surprised to hear Social Security mentioned by both the GOP and the president, as if the program is part of what Republicans call our “spending problem.” It isn’t.
“Under the law Social Security is not supposed to be part of the budget,” writes Dean Baker, an economist and the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It is an entirely separate program financed on its own.”
And as a self-funded program, it has sufficient funds to pay full benefits until 2033. After that, it is funded to pay 75 percent of obligated benefits.
Basically, there isn’t a crisis now and won’t be for 20 years.
The problem is, not enough Americans seem to know this. But a new study from the National Academy of Social Insurance (PDF) shows that when citizens are informed about the realities of Social Security, they’re comforted and willing to make changes to make the program solvent into the future.
A majority initially responded that Social Security was in “crisis.” But once informed of the slight increase in payroll taxes needed to save the program, 3 out of 4 said there is no crisis.
And while 82 percent of Americans are willing to pay higher taxes to save Social Security, there is, of course, an even more popular alternative.
A remarkable 87 percent of those surveyed are in favor of taxing the wealthy at a higher rate in order to save the earned benefit that has dramatically reduced poverty among senior citizens.
Currently, there is a $110,100 cap on Social Security taxes, meaning no matter how much you earn, you only pay your 6.2 percent payroll tax on the first $110,100. The result is that working families, who often will depend on Social Security for retirement, pay a larger share of their income in payroll taxes. Paying this tax is still quite popular with the 80 percent who value the benefit for themselves.
You’ve probably heard of the “Chained CPI” proposal floated by the president and supported by some progressives, including The Center for American Progress. This would slow the growth of the Social Security benefit, eventually cutting hundreds and then over $1,000 a year for the beneficiaries who need it the most.
This would not be a very popular policy choice. A key finding of the NASI study is that “84 percent believe current Social Security benefits do not provide enough income for retirees, and 75 percent believe we should consider raising future Social Security benefits in order to provide a more secure retirement for working Americans.” This would be the exact opposite of what the “Chained CPI” would do.
Raising the cap on taxed income over 10 years is the single most popular proposal to help fund the program fully for the foreseeable future. This option is far more popular than raising the retirement age to 67, another option that has been discussed in the “grand bargain.”
So if Social Security is so popular and so essential that 96 percent of current beneficiaries say it is important to their monthly income, why are cuts even being considered?
Well, it would save a lot of money — though not as much money as we could have saved by letting breaks on estate taxes for wealthy families end.
Besides Medicare, which is nearly as popular as Social Security and actually a lot closer to “crisis,” there isn’t much to cut. Discretionary spending is at historic lows. But the main issue is that Republicans have vowed on stacks of Bibles never to raise taxes — even if it’s a very popular choice and would save an essential part of our safety net in perpetuity.
As Americans realize when given the facts, Social Security isn’t in crisis. The crisis is politicians clinging to intractable beliefs that force them to make cuts that almost no one wants to the programs Americans need the most.