Consider the Risks of Relying on Social Security
The 58 million Americans who currently receive Social Security benefits will not receive a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2011. This is the second consecutive year in which payments were frozen because the Consumer Price Index measured little or no inflation.1
Although the decision to freeze benefits in 2011 is not directly related to the social insurance program’s projected funding shortfall, consider it a lesson in the risk of relying too heavily on a program that has a potentially uncertain future. Millions of Americans who rely on Social Security just found out that they won’t receive an anticipated benefit increase - and they learned this only a few months in advance, too late for them to do much about it.
Given that nothing like this has happened before, the disappointment among Social Security beneficiaries may have been compounded by an element of surprise: 2010 was the first year since 1975, when Social Security instituted automatic COLAs tied to the rate of inflation, in which benefits did not increase year-over-year.2 It’s likely that many retirees believed that the lack of a COLA in 2010 meant that one would be virtually guaranteed in 2011 because it would be unheard of for the government to go two years without increasing benefits. But that is exactly what has happened.
Going forward, it might be prudent to expect more surprises from Social Security. The program’s already fragile situation has deteriorated further in the face of widespread unemployment and a significant reduction in the payroll tax receipts that fund the government’s largest program. The Congressional Budget Office now expects that in 2010, Social Security outlays will exceed tax revenues for the first time since Social Security was amended in 1983. Although the CBO expects that revenues will generally equal outlays over the next few years, growing numbers of retiring baby boomers will eventually overwhelm the system and cause outlays to regularly exceed tax revenues by 2016. The CBO also projects that Social Security’s so-called trust funds, which are actually IOUs issued by Congress for borrowing Social Security’s surplus revenues in years past, will be exhausted by 2039 if no changes are made to current laws.3
What if It Happened to You?
Imagine what your own financial situation might look like if Social Security announced shortly before your anticipated retirement date that, because of underfunding, it would cut benefits and raise eligibility requirements.
Although these measures have not been adopted, it’s worth noting that they are being considered. The Congressional Budget Office has studied policy options that include reducing benefits, raising the retirement age, limiting future COLAs, and increasing payroll taxes.4 Because there is little consensus among lawmakers or the public, a solution reached by political negotiation could combine several different measures.
Fortunately, Social Security’s precarious financial situation has not gone unnoticed. Seventy-seven percent of Americans now believe the enormous cost associated with entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare will eventually create major economic problems for the nation if they are left unchecked.5 Fifty-six percent of retirees believe they will eventually suffer a cut in their benefits, and 60% of workers have expressed doubt they will ever receive Social Security payments.6
It seems clear that, at the very least, Social Security will not be able survive without making some adjustments. The good news is that you are already aware of the likelihood, so it might be wise to prepare for your own retirement on the assumption that Social Security won’t be able to provide the same level of benefits that you might currently be expecting. Better to make such an assumption now, and begin seeking ways to offset the potential shortfall, than wait until it’s too late to do anything about it.
1–2) Social Security Administration, 2010
3–4) Congressional Budget Office, 2010
5–6) Gallup, 2010
The information in this article is not intended as tax or legal advice, and it may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any federal tax penalties. You are encouraged to seek tax or legal advice from an independent professional advisor. The content is derived from sources believed to be accurate. This material was written and prepared by Emerald.