Ever since a legal secretary named Ida May Fuller received the first Social Security retirement check in 1940, Americans have been counting on Social Security to provide much needed retirement income. For many older Americans, Social Security is their main source of guaranteed retirement income—income that continues throughout their lifetimes and is indexed for inflation every year (in 2019, the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, was 2.8%).
Social Security provides more than just retirement income, though. It also provides disability and survivor insurance benefits. About 62 million people—more than one in six U.S. residents—collected some type of Social Security benefit in 2018, with approximately 80% of these recipients receiving Social Security retirement or survivor benefits.1
How Social Security works
Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, which means that payments from current workers (in the form of payroll taxes) fund benefits for current beneficiaries. The payroll tax rate for Social Security is 12.4%, with 6.2% paid by the employee and 6.2% paid by the employer (self-employed individuals pay the entire 12.4%). These payroll taxes are deposited into the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund (for retirement and survivor benefits) and the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund (for disability payments).
Because of demographic and economic factors, including higher retirement rates and lower birth rates, there will be fewer workers per beneficiary over the long term, worsening the strain on the trust funds. This year, the trustees of Social Security reported that the OASI trust fund is projected to run out in 2034. After that, payroll tax revenue alone would be sufficient to pay 77% of scheduled benefits.
Ideas for reform
There has been little national consensus by policymakers on how to deal with Social Security’s looming demographic challenges. Meaningful reform will require broad bipartisan support, and the trustees have urged Congress to address Social Security’s challenges sooner rather than later, so that solutions will be less drastic and can be implemented gradually, lessening the impact on the public.
Some Social Security reform proposals on the table include:
- Raising the current Social Security payroll tax rate—according to the 2019 trustees report, an immediate and permanent payroll tax increase to 15.1% (up from the current 12.4%) would be necessary to address the long-range revenue shortfall (16.05% if the increase started in 2035)
- Raising or eliminating the ceiling on wages currently subject to Social Security payroll taxes ($132,900 in 2019)
- Raising the full retirement age beyond the currently scheduled age of 67 (for anyone born in 1960 or later)
- Reducing future benefits—to address the long-term revenue shortfall, the trustees have noted that scheduled benefits would have to be immediately and permanently reduced by about 17% for all current and future beneficiaries, or by approximately 20% if reductions were applied only to those who initially become eligible for benefits in 2019 or later
- Changing the formula that is used to calculate benefits
- Changing the formula that is used to calculate the annual cost-of-living adjustment for benefits
Understand your retirement benefits
The amount you’ll receive from Social Security is based on the number of years you’ve worked, the amount you’ve earned over your lifetime, and the age when you file for benefits. Your benefit is calculated using a formula that takes into account your 35 highest earnings years, but you don’t need to work for that long to qualify for retirement benefits. Generally, you need to have earned a minimum of 40 work credits, which is about 10 years of work in a job covered by Social Security. If you haven’t worked long enough to qualify on your own, you may qualify for spousal benefits based on your spouse’s work record. A spousal benefit claimed at your full retirement age is generally equal to 50% of the primary worker’s full benefit.
You can get an estimate of your future Social Security retirement benefits by visiting the Social Security website at ssa.gov and using the Retirement Estimator tool or by viewing your Social Security Statement. Your personalized statement contains a detailed record of your earnings history, as well as estimates of the retirement, survivor, and disability benefits you can expect at different ages. To view your statement online, you’ll first need to register. If you haven’t registered online, you’ll receive your Social Security Statement in the mail every year if you are age 60 or older and not yet receiving benefits.
1 Top Ten Facts About Social Security, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, August 14, 2018