Monday, October 31, 2011

Social Security is Cash-Negative

Social Security is now paying out more in benefits than it is receiving in taxes. Lori Montgomery writes at The Washington Post:
Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went “cash negative.”

For most of its 75-year history, the program had paid its own way through a dedicated stream of payroll taxes, even generating huge surpluses for the past two decades. But in 2010, under the strain of a recession that caused tax revenue to plummet, the cost of benefits outstripped tax collections for the first time since the early 1980s.

Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation’s budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.

But while talk about fixing the nation’s finances has grown more urgent, fixing Social Security has largely vanished from the conversation.

Lawmakers in both parties are ducking the issue, wary of agitating older voters and their advocates in Washington, who have long targeted politicians who try to tamper with federal retirement benefits. Democrats lost control of the House last year in part because seniors abandoned them in protest over Medicare cuts in Obama’s much-contested health-care act, and no one in Washington has forgotten that lesson.

In his February budget request, Obama ignored the Social Security blueprint put forth by his own bipartisan panel on debt reduction. During this summer’s debt-limit showdown, he endorsed the panel’s proposal to tie future benefits to a less-generous inflation index. But Obama took that idea off the table in September when he submitted recommendations to a special debt-reduction “supercommittee” now at work on Capitol Hill. Until recently, members of the supercommittee said, Social Security had rarely come up in their closed deliberations.

Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget. But unless Congress acts, its finances will continue to deteriorate as the rising tide of baby boomers begins claiming benefits. The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.
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