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In the United States, Social Security refers to the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) federal program. The original Social Security Act (1935) and the current version of the Act, as amended encompass several social welfare and social insurance programs.
Social Security is primarily funded through dedicated payroll taxes called Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax (FICA). Tax deposits are formally entrusted to the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund, the Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, or the Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund which comprise the Social Security Trust Fund.
By dollars paid, the U.S. Social Security program is the largest government program in the world and the single greatest expenditure in the federal budget, with 20.8% for Social Security, compared to 20.5% for discretionary defense and 20.1% for Medicare/Medicaid. In 2003 the combined spending for all social insurance programs constituted 37% of government expenditure and 7% of the gross domestic product. Social Security is currently estimated to keep roughly 40 percent of all Americans age 65 or older out of poverty.
A limited form of the Social Security program began, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, as a measure to implement "social insurance" during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when poverty rates among senior citizens exceeded 50 percent. The Act was an attempt to limit what were seen as dangers in the modern American life, including old age, poverty, unemployment, and the burdens of widows and fatherless children.
Opponents also decried the proposal as socialism. In a Senate Finance Committee hearing, one Senator asked Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, "Isn't this socialism?" She said that it was not, but he continued, "Isn't this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?"
Most women and minorities were excluded from the benefits of unemployment insurance and old age pensions. Employment definitions reflected typical white male categories and patterns.
The provisions of Social Security have been changing since the 1930s, shifting in response to economic worries as well as concerns over changing gender roles and the position of minorities. Officials have responded more to the concerns of women than those of minority groups. Social Security gradually moved toward universal coverage. By 1950, debates moved away from which occupational groups should be included to how to provide more adequate coverage. Changes in Social Security have reflected a balance between promoting equality and efforts to provide adequate protection.
The larger and better known programs under the Social Security Act and amendments are:
The largest component of OASDI is the payment of retirement benefits. Throughout a worker's career, the Social Security Administration keeps track of his or her earnings. The amount of the monthly benefit to which the worker is entitled depends upon that earnings record and upon the age at which the retiree chooses to begin receiving benefits. For the entire history of Social Security, benefits have been paid almost entirely by using revenue from payroll taxes. This is why Social Security is referred to as a pay-as-you-go system. Around 2021, payroll tax revenue in combination with accruing interest on the Social Security Trust Fund is projected to be insufficient to cover Social Security benefits and the system will begin to withdraw money from the Social Security Trust Fund. The existence and economic significance of the Social Security Trust Fund is a subject of considerable dispute because its assets are special Treasury bonds; i.e. the money in the trust fund has been lent back to the federal government to pay for other expenses.
A worker's retirement income benefit is based on his Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA. The PIA is the average of the highest 35 years of the worker's covered earnings (before deduction for FICA). Covered earnings in any year are limited by that year's Social Security Wage Base, the maximum earnings that could be subject to the OASDI portion of FICA payroll tax ($110,100 in 2012). If the worker has fewer than 35 years of covered earnings, zeros are used to bring the total number of years of earnings up to 35. Years of covered work more than 2 years before the year the worker turns 62 are indexed upward to reflect the increase in the national wage via the average wage index (AWI) from the time at which the earnings were covered in the past to the value of the AWI two years before the worker turns 62 (which is the most recent year available at the date the worker turns 62). One-twelfth of this 35-year average is the average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). The PIA then is 90 percent of the AIME up to the first (low) bendpoint, and 32 percent of the excess of AIME over the first bendpoint but not in excess of the second (high) bendpoint, plus 15 percent of the AIME in excess of the second bendpoint. Bendpoints designate the point at which the rates of return on a beneficiary's AIME change. In 2008, the bendpoints for calculating the PIA are a change from 90% to 32% at $711 and a change to 15% at $4,288. This PIA is then adjusted by automatic cost-of-living adjustments annually starting with the year the worker turns 62. Similar computations based on career average earnings determine disability and survivor benefits. These alternate computations average less years of earnings when the worker dies or is disabled before age 62 and use different base years for the inflation adjustments.
The earliest age at which (reduced) benefits are payable is 62. Full retirement benefits depend on a retiree's year of birth.
|Year of birth||Normal retirement age|
|1937 and prior||65|
|1938||65 and 2 months|
|1939||65 and 4 months|
|1940||65 and 6 months|
|1941||65 and 8 months|
|1942||65 and 10 months|
|1943 to 1954||66|
|1955||66 and 2 months|
|1956||66 and 4 months|
|1957||66 and 6 months|
|1958||66 and 8 months|
|1959||66 and 10 months|
|1960 and later||67|
This table was copied in November 2011 from the Social Security Administration web site cited above and referenced in the footnotes. There are different rules for widows and widowers. Also from that site, come the following two notes: Notes: 1. Persons born on January 1 of any year should refer to the normal retirement age for the previous year. 2. For the purpose of determining benefit reductions for early retirement, widows and widowers whose entitlement is based on having attained age 60 should add 2 years to the year of birth shown in the table.
Those born before 1938 have a normal retirement age of 65. Normal retirement age increases by two months for each ensuing year of birth until 1943, when it reaches 66 and stays at 66 until 1955. Thereafter the normal retirement age increases again by two months for each year until 1960, when normal retirement age is 67 and remains 67 for all individuals born thereafter.
It is perhaps instructive to look at the percentages of retirees in countries around the world. The breakdown in the more well known countries is as follows: Europe, Northern America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan has increased from 8 percent in the 1950s to 14 percent in 2000, and is predicted to reach 26 percent in 2050. The reason for these high percentages is a result of a decline in the death and fertility rates.
A worker who starts benefits before normal retirement age has their benefit reduced based on the number of months before normal retirement age they start benefits. This reduction is 5/9 of 1% for each month up to 36 and then 5/12 of 1% for each additional month. This formula gives an 80% benefit at age 62 for a worker with a normal retirement age of 65, a 75% benefit at age 62 for a worker with a normal retirement age of 66, and a 70% benefit at age 62 for a worker with a normal retirement age of 67. The 2008–2012 global recession has resulted in an increase in long term unemployment and an increase in workers taking early retirement.
A worker who delays starting retirement benefits past normal retirement age earns delayed retirement credits that increase their benefit until they reach age 70. These credits are also applied to their widow(er)'s benefit. Children and spouse benefits are not affected by these credits.
The normal retirement age for widow(er) benefits shifts the year-of-birth schedule upward by two years, so that those widow(er)s born before 1940 have age 65 as their normal retirement age.
Any current spouse is eligible, and divorced or former spouses are eligible generally if the marriage lasts for at least 10 years. (Civil marriages of same sex couples are not recognized by OASDI for spousal benefits because the federal DOMA law excludes them for federal recognition.) While it is arithmetically possible for one worker to generate spousal benefits for up to five of his/her spouses that he/she may have, each must be in succession after a proper divorce for each after a marriage of at least ten years. Because age 70 is the latest retirement age, and because no state recognizes marriage before teenage years, there are no more than 5 successive spousal benefits in ten-year intervals. This spousal retirement benefit is half the PIA of the worker; this is different from the spousal survivor benefit, which is the full PIA. The benefit is the product of the PIA, times one half, times the early-retirement factor if the spouse is younger than normal retirement age. There is no increase for starting spousal benefits after normal retirement age. This can occur if there is a married couple in which the younger person is the only worker and is more than 5 years younger. Only after the worker applies for retirement benefits may the non-working spouse apply for spousal retirement benefits.
Note that, since the passage of the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act, in 2000, the spouse and children of a worker who has reached normal retirement age can receive benefits on the worker's record whether the worker is receiving benefits or not. Thus a worker can delay retirement without affecting spousal and children's benefits. The worker may have to begin receipt of benefits, to allow the spousal/children's benefits to begin, and then subsequently suspend his/her own benefits in order to continue the postponement of benefits in exchange for an increased benefit amount up to the age of 70.
If a worker covered by Social Security dies, a surviving spouse can receive survivors' benefits. In some instances, survivors' benefits are available even to a divorced spouse. A father or mother with minor or disabled children in his or her care can receive benefits which are not actuarially reduced. The earliest age for a nondisabled widow(er)'s benefit is age 60. The benefit is equal to the worker's full retirement benefit for spouses who are at, or older than, normal retirement age. If the surviving spouse starts benefits before normal retirement age, there is an actuarial reduction. If the worker earned delayed retirement credits by waiting to start benefits after their normal retirement age, the surviving spouse will have those credits applied to their benefit.
Children of a retired, disabled or deceased worker receive benefits as a "dependent" or "survivor" if they are under the age of 16, or are over the age of 18 and were disabled before the age of 22. In a landmark case, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decided that a child is entitled to survivor benefits even though she was born two years after her father's death, having been conceived by in vitro fertilization.
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A worker who has worked long enough and recently enough (based on "quarters of coverage" within the recent past) to be covered can receive disability benefits. These benefits start after five full calendar months of disability, regardless of his or her age. The eligibility formula requires a certain number of credits (based on earnings) to have been earned overall, and a certain number within the ten years immediately preceding the disability, but with more-lenient provisions for younger workers who become disabled before having had a chance to compile a long earnings history.
The worker must be unable to continue in his or her previous job and unable to adjust to other work, with age, education, and work experience taken into account; furthermore, the disability must be long-term, lasting 12 months, expected to last 12 months, resulting in death, or expected to result in death. As with the retirement benefit, the amount of the disability benefit payable depends on the worker's age and record of covered earnings.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) uses the same disability criteria as the insured social security disability program, but SSI is not based upon insurance coverage. Instead, a system of means-testing is used to determine whether the claimants' income and net worth fall below certain income and asset thresholds.
Severely disabled children may qualify for SSI. Standards for child disability are different from those for adults.
Disability determination at the Social Security Administration has created the largest system of administrative courts in the United States. Depending on the state of residence, a claimant whose initial application for benefits is denied can request reconsideration or a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Such hearings sometimes involve participation of an independent vocational expert (VE) or medical expert (ME), as called upon by the ALJ.
Reconsideration involves a re-examination of the evidence and, in some cases, the opportunity for a hearing before a (non-attorney) disability hearing officer. The hearing officer then issues a decision in writing, providing justification for his/her finding. If the claimant is denied at the reconsideration stage, (s)he may request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. In some states, SSA has implemented a pilot program that eliminates the reconsideration step and allows claimants to appeal an initial denial directly to an Administrative Law Judge.
Because the number of applications for Social Security is very large (approximately 650,000 applications per year), the number of hearings requested by claimants often exceeds the capacity of Administrative Law Judges. The number of hearings requested and availability of Administrative Law Judges varies geographically across the United States. In some areas of the country, it is possible for a claimant to have a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge within 90 days of his/her request. In other areas, waiting times of 18 months are not uncommon.
After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issues a decision in writing. The decision can be Fully Favorable (the ALJ finds the claimant disabled as of the date that (s) he alleges in the application through the present), Partially Favorable (the ALJ finds the claimant disabled at some point, but not as of the date alleged in the application; OR the ALJ finds that the claimant was disabled but has improved), or Unfavorable (the ALJ finds that the claimant was not disabled at all). Claimants can appeal decisions to Social Security's Appeals Council, which is in Virginia. The Appeals Council does not hold hearings; it accepts written briefs. Response time from the Appeals Council can range from 12 weeks to more than 3 years.
If the claimant disagrees with the Appeals Council's decision, (s)he can appeal the case in the federal district court for his/her jurisdiction. As in most federal court cases, an unfavorable district court decision can be appealed to the appropriate United States Court of Appeals, and an unfavorable appellate court decision can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
Obtaining a Social Security number for a child is voluntary. Further, there is no general legal requirement that individuals join the Social Security program (although, under normal circumstances, FICA taxes must be collected anyway). Although the Social Security Act itself does not require a person to have a Social Security Number (SSN) to live and work in the United States, the Internal Revenue Code does generally require the use of the social security number by individuals for federal tax purposes:
Importantly, most parents apply for Social Security numbers for their dependent children in order to include them on their income tax returns as a dependent. Everyone filing a tax return, as taxpayer or spouse, must have a Social Security Number or Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) since the IRS is unable to process returns or post payments for anyone without an SSN or TIN.
The FICA taxes are imposed on all workers and self-employed persons. Employers are required to report wages for covered employment to Social Security for processing Forms W-2 and W-3. There are some specific wages which are not a part of the Social Security program (discussed below). Internal Revenue Code provisions section 3101 imposes payroll taxes on individuals and employer matching taxes. Section 3102 mandates that employers deduct these payroll taxes from workers' wages before they are paid. Generally, the payroll tax is imposed on everyone in employment earning "wages" as defined in 3121 of the Internal Revenue Code. and also taxes net earnings from self-employment.
Social Security taxes are paid into the Social Security Trust Fund maintained by the U.S. Treasury (technically, the "Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund", as established by ). Current year expenses are paid from current Social Security tax revenues. When revenues exceed expenditures, as they have in most years, the excess is invested in special series, non-marketable U.S. Government bonds, thus the Social Security Trust Fund indirectly finances the federal government's general purpose deficit spending. In 2007, the cumulative excess of Social Security taxes and interest received over benefits paid out stood at $2.2 trillion. The Trust Fund is regarded by some as an accounting trick which holds no economic significance. Others argue that it has specific legal significance because the Treasury securities it holds are backed by the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government, which has an obligation to repay its debt.
The Social Security Administration's authority to make benefit payments as granted by Congress extends only to its current revenues and existing Trust Fund balance, i.e., redemption of its holdings of Treasury securities. Therefore, Social Security's ability to make full payments once annual benefits exceed revenues depends in part on the federal government's ability to make good on the bonds that it has issued to the Social Security trust funds. As with any other federal obligation, the federal government's ability to repay Social Security is based on the power to tax and the commitment of the Congress to meet its obligations.
In 2009 the Office of the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration calculated an unfunded obligation of $15.1 trillion for the Social Security program. The unfunded obligation is the difference between the present value of the cost of Social Security and the present value of the assets in the Trust Fund and the future scheduled tax income of the program. In the Actuarial Note explaining the calculation, the Office of the Chief Actuary wrote that "The term obligation is used in lieu of the term liability, because liability generally indicates a contractual obligation (as in the case of private pensions and insurance) that cannot be altered by the plan sponsor without the agreement of the plan participants."
"The Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) administers the hearings and appeals program for the Social Security Administration (SSA). Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) conduct hearings and issue decisions. The Appeals Council considers appeals from hearing decisions, and acts as the final level of administrative review for the Social Security Administration." In 2006, OHA was renamed to ODAR.
The current formula used in calculating the benefit level (primary insurance amount or PIA) is very progressive so that sizable benefits could be obtained with much less than the thirty five to forty years of covered wages. Workers who spend their entire careers in covered employment would be unfairly treated relative to workers who spend the first half of their careers not covered (as in municipal employment) by OASDI but are covered by an alternative plan. These people who later switch into covered employment would be entitled to both the alternative non OASDI pension (presumably from a state or municipality) and get an Old Age retirement benefit from Social Security. The progressivity of the PIA formula would in effect allow these workers to double dip. Therefore, there are two provisions that mitigate the effect of the double dipping: one for those who obtain OASDI benefits from a spouse who is a covered worker and the other for those who split their careers in covered and noncovered employment. This latter double dip has a claw back factor which starts at maximum at 10 years and grades out to zero at 30 years so that there is no clawback for those with 30 years or more of covered wages. This is to prevent those with abnormally low AIMEs due to few years of covered status from being treated as lifetime (say 44 years) career low wage earners with low AIMEs.
People sometimes relocate from one country to another, either permanently or on a limited-time basis. This presents challenges to businesses, governments, and individuals seeking to ensure future benefits or having to deal with taxation authorities in multiple countries. To that end, the Social Security Administration has signed treaties, often referred to as Totalization Agreements, with other social insurance programs in various foreign countries.
Overall, these agreements serve two main purposes. First, they eliminate dual Social Security taxation, the situation that occurs when a worker from one country works in another country and is required to pay Social Security taxes to both countries on the same earnings. Second, the agreements help fill gaps in benefit protection for workers who have divided their careers between the United States and another country.
The following countries have signed totalization agreements with the SSA (and the date the agreement became effective):
A side effect of the Social Security program in the United States has been the near-universal adoption of the program's identification number, the Social Security number, as the U.S. national identification number. The social security number, or SSN, is issued pursuant to section 205(c)(2) of the Social Security Act, codified as . The government originally stated that the SSN would not be a means of identification, but currently a multitude of U.S. entities use the Social Security number as a personal identifier. These include government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the military (which prints it on service members' dog tags and uses it in a number of ways to identify personnel, including the name, rank and "serial number" one would furnish the enemy as a POW) as well as private agencies such as banks, colleges and universities, health insurance companies, and employers.
The Social Security Administration admits that the Social Security Act does not require a person to have a Social Security Number to live and work in the United States, nor does it require an SSN simply for the purpose of having one.
The Privacy Act of 1974 was in part intended to limit usage of the Social Security number as a means of identification. Paragraph (1) of subsection (a) of section 7 of the Privacy Act, an uncodified provision, states in part:
However, paragraph (2) of subsection (a) of section 7 of the Privacy Act provides in part:
The exceptions under section 7 of the Privacy Act include the Internal Revenue Code requirement that social security numbers be used as taxpayer identification numbers for individuals.
In each year since 1982, OASDI tax receipts, interest payments and other income have exceeded benefit payments and other expenditures, for example by more than $150 billion in 2004. As the "baby boomers" move out of the work force and into retirement, however, expenses will come to exceed tax receipts and then, after several more years, will exceed all system income, including interest. At that point the system will begin drawing on its Treasury Notes, and will continue to pay benefits at the current levels until the Trust Fund is exhausted. At that point, benefits will be reduced to about three-fourths of current levels unless additional revenue is found.
In 2005, this exhaustion of the Trust Fund was projected to occur in 2041 (by the Social Security Administration) or 2052 (by the Congressional Budget Office). Thereafter, however, the projection for the date of this event was moved up by a few years after the recession worsened the system's financial picture. The 2011 OASDI Trustees Report stated:
Annual cost exceeded non-interest income in 2010 and is projected to continue to be larger throughout the remainder of the 75-year valuation period. Nevertheless, from 2010 through 2022, total trust fund income, including interest income, is more than is necessary to cover costs, so trust fund assets will continue to grow during that time period. Beginning in 2023, trust fund assets will diminish until they become exhausted in 2036. Non-interest income is projected to be sufficient to support expenditures at a level of 77 percent of scheduled benefits after trust fund exhaustion in 2036, and then to decline to 74 percent of scheduled benefits in 2085.
In 2007, the Social Security Trustees suggested that either the payroll tax could increase to 16.41 percent in 2041 and steadily increased to 17.60 percent in 2081 or a cut in benefits by 25 percent in 2041 and steadily increased to an overall cut of 30 percent in 2081.
The Social Security Administration projects that the demographic situation will stabilize. The cash flow deficit in the Social Security system will have leveled off as a share of the economy. This projection has come into question. Some demographers argue that life expectancy will improve more than projected by the Social Security Trustees, a development that would make solvency worse. Some economists believe future productivity growth will be higher than the current projections by the Social Security Trustees. In this case, the Social Security shortfall would be smaller than currently projected.
("Social Security Underestimates Future Life Spans, Critics Say"[dead link]) The Census Bureau projection is that the longer life spans projected for 2075 by the Social Security Administration will be reached in 2050. Other experts, however, think that the past gains in life expectancy cannot be repeated, and add that the adverse effect on the system's finances may be partly offset if health improvements induce people to stay in the workforce longer.
Actuarial science, of the kind used to project the future solvency of social security, is by nature inexact. The SSA actually makes three predictions: optimistic, midline, and pessimistic (until the late 1980s it made 4 projections). The Social Security crisis that was developing prior to the 1983 reforms resulted from midline projections that turned out to be too optimistic. It has been argued that the overly pessimistic projections of the mid to late 1990s were partly the result of the low economic growth (according to actuary David Langer) assumptions which resulted in the projected exhaustion date being pushed back (from 2028 to 2042) with each successive Trustee's report. During the heavy-boom years of the '90s, the midline projections were too pessimistic. Obviously, projecting out 75 years is a significant challenge and, as such, the actual situation might be much better or much worse than predicted.
The Social Security Advisory Board has on three occasions since 1999 appointed a Technical Advisory Panel to review the methods and assumptions used in the annual projections for the Social Security trust funds. The most recent report of the Technical Advisory Panel, released in June 2008 with a copyright date of October 2007, includes a number of recommendations for improving the Social Security projections.
Increased spending for Social Security will occur at the same time as increases in Medicare, as a result of the aging of the baby boomers. One projection illustrates the relationship between the two programs:
On July 22, 2008 the Social Security Administration introduced a new online benefits estimator. A worker who has enough Social Security credits to qualify for benefits, but who is not currently receiving benefits on his or her own Social Security record and who is not a Medicare beneficiary, can obtain an estimate of the retirement benefit that will be provided, for different assumptions about age at retirement.
Benefits are funded by taxes imposed on wages of employees and self-employed persons. As explained below, in the case of employment, the employer and employee are each responsible for one half of the Social Security tax, with the employee's half being withheld from the employee's pay check. In the case of self-employed persons (i.e., independent contractors), the self-employed person is responsible for the entire amount of Social Security tax.
The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) (codified in the Internal Revenue Code) imposes a Social Security withholding tax equal to 6.20% of the gross wage amount, up to but not exceeding the Social Security Wage Base ($97,500 for 2007; $102,000 for 2008; and $106,800 for 2009, 2010, and 2011). The same 6.20% tax is imposed on employers. For 2011, the employee's contribution was reduced to 4.2%, while the employer's portion remained at 6.2%. In 2012, the wage base increases to $110,100. For each calendar year for which the worker is assessed the FICA contribution, the SSA credits those wages as that year's covered wages. The income cutoff is adjusted yearly for inflation and other factors.
A separate payroll tax of 1.45% of an employee's income is paid directly by the employer, and an additional 1.45% deducted from the employee's paycheck, yielding a total tax rate of 2.90%. There is no maximum limit on this portion of the tax. This portion of the tax is used to fund the Medicare program, which is primarily responsible for providing health benefits to retirees.
The combined tax rate of these two federal programs was 15.30% (7.65% paid by the employee and 7.65% paid by the employer) and dropped to 13.30% (5.65% paid by the employee and 7.65% paid by the employer) in 2011.
For self-employed workers (who technically are not employees and are deemed not to be earning "wages" for Federal tax purposes), the self-employment tax, imposed by the Self-Employment Contributions Act of 1954, codified as Chapter 2 of Subtitle A of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. §§ 1401–1403, is 15.3% of "net earnings from self-employment." In essence, a self-employed individual pays both the employee and employer share of the tax, although half of the self-employment tax (the "employer share") is deductible when calculating the individual's federal income tax.
If an employee has overpaid payroll taxes by having more than one job or switching jobs during the year, the excess taxes will be refunded when the employee files his federal income tax return. Any excess taxes paid by employers, however, are not refundable to the employers.
Workers are not required to pay Social Security taxes on wages from certain types of work:
The benefits received by retirees were not originally taxed as income in the year of receipt. Beginning in tax year 1984, with the Reagan-era reforms to repair the system's projected insolvency, retirees with incomes over $25,000 (in the case of married persons filing separately who did not live with the spouse at any time during the year, and for persons filing as "single"), or with combined incomes over $32,000 (if married filing jointly) or, in certain cases, any income amount (if married filing separately from the spouse in a year in which the taxpayer lived with the spouse at any time) generally saw part of the retiree benefits subject to Federal income tax. In 1984, the portion of the benefits potentially subject to tax was 50%. Under the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993, the portion of benefits potentially subject to tax was increased to 85% beginning with the 1994 tax year.
Critics, such as libertarian Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, say that Social Security redistributes wealth from the poor to the wealthy. Workers must pay 12.4 percent, including a 6.2 percent employer contribution, on their wages below the Social Security Wage Base ($110,100 in 2012), but no tax on income in excess of this amount. Therefore, high earners pay a lower percentage of their total income because of the income caps; because of this, payroll taxes are often viewed as being regressive. Furthermore, wealthier individuals generally have higher life expectancies and thus may expect to receive larger benefits for a longer period than poorer taxpayers. A single individual who dies before age 62, who is more likely to be poor, receives no retirement benefits despite his years of paying Social Security tax. On the other hand, an individual who lives to age 100, who is more likely to be wealthy, is guaranteed payments that are more than he paid into the system. An NBER volume edited by Martin Feldstein and Jeffrey Liebman called The Distributional Aspects of Social Security points out that members of racial minorities with lower than average life expectancies and lower than average rates of marriage may also suffer from the program on average.
Supporters of Social Security say that despite its regressive tax formula, Social Security benefits are calculated using a progressive benefit formula that replaces a much higher percentage of low-income workers' pre-retirement income than that of higher-income workers (although these low-income workers pay a higher percentage of their pre-retirement income). They also point to numerous studies that show that, relative to high-income workers, Social Security disability and survivor benefits paid on behalf of low-income workers more than offset any retirement benefits that may be lost because of shorter life expectancy, but this offset requires an individual to be disabled. Other research asserts that survivor benefits, allegedly an offset, actually exacerbate the problem because survivor benefits are denied to single individuals, including widow(er)s married less than nine months (except in certain situations), divorced widow(er)s married less than 10 years, and co-habiting or same-sex couples, unless they are legally married in their state of residence. Unmarried individuals tend to be less wealthy and minorities.
Critics of Social Security have said that the politicians who created Social Security exempted themselves from having to pay the Social Security tax. Indeed, when the federal government created Social Security, all federal employees, including the President and members of Congress, were exempt from having to pay the Social Security tax, and they received no Social Security benefits. This law was changed by the Social Security Amendments of 1983, which brought within the Social Security system all members of Congress, the President and the Vice President, federal judges, and certain executive-level political appointees, as well as all federal employees hired in any capacity on or after January 1, 1984. Many state and local government workers, however, are exempt from Social Security taxes because they contribute instead to alternative retirement systems set up by their employers.
George Mason University economics professor Walter E. Williams claimed that the federal government has broken its own promise regarding the maximum Social Security tax. Williams used data from the federal government to back up his claim.
According to a 1936 pamphlet on the Social Security website, the federal government promised the following maximum level of taxation for Social Security, "... beginning in 1949, twelve years from now, you and your employer will each pay 3 cents on each dollar you earn, up to $3,000 a year. That is the most you will ever pay."
However, according to the Social Security website, by the year 2008, the tax rate was 6.2% each for the employer and employee, and the maximum income level that was subject to the tax was $102,000 raising the bar to $6,324 maximum contribution by both employee and employer (total $12,648).
In 2005, Williams wrote, "Had Congress lived up to those promises, where $3,000 was the maximum earnings subject to Social Security tax, controlling for inflation, today's $50,000-a-year wage earner would pay about $700 in Social Security taxes, as opposed to the more than $3,000 that he pays today."
According to the Social Security website, "The tax rate in the original 1935 law was 1% each on the employer and the employee, on the first $3,000 of earnings. This rate was increased on a regular schedule in four steps so that by 1949 the rate would be 3% each on the first $3,000. The figure was never $1,400, and the rate was never fixed for all time at 1%."
Critics of Social Security claim that it gives a low rate of return, compared to what is obtained through private retirement accounts. For example, critics point out that under the Social Security laws as they existed at that time, several thousand employees of Galveston County, Texas were allowed to opt out of the Social Security program in the early 1980s, and have their money placed in a private retirement plan instead. While employees who earned $50,000 per year would have collected $1,302 per month in Social Security benefits, the private plan paid them $6,843 per month. While employees who earned $20,000 per year would have collected $775 per month in Social Security benefits, the private plan paid them $2,740 per month, at interest rates prevailing in 1996. While some advocates of privatization of Social Security point to the Galveston pension plan as a model for Social Security reform, critics point to a GAO report to the House Ways and Means Committee, which indicates that, for low and middle income employees, particularly those with shorter work histories, the outcome may be less favorable.
...the vast majority of the money you pay in Social Security taxes is not invested in anything. Instead, the money you pay into the system is used to pay benefits to those "early investors" who are retired today. When you retire, you will have to rely on the next generation of workers behind you to pay the taxes that will finance your benefits.
As with Ponzi’s scheme, this turns out to be a very good deal for those who got in early. The very first Social Security recipient, Ida Mae Fuller of Vermont, paid just $44 in Social Security taxes, but the long-lived Mrs. Fuller collected $20,993 in benefits. Such high returns were possible because there were many workers paying into the system and only a few retirees taking benefits out of it. In 1950, for instance, there were 16 workers supporting every retiree. Today, there are just over three. By around 2030, we will be down to just two.As with Ponzi’s scheme, when the number of new contributors dries up, it will become impossible to continue to pay the promised benefits. Those early windfall returns are long gone. When today’s young workers retire, they will receive returns far below what private investments could provide.—Michael Tanner
One criticism of the analogy is that while Ponzi schemes and Social Security have similar structures (in particular, a sustainability problem when the number of new people paying in is declining), they have different transparencies. In a Ponzi scheme the fact there is no return generating mechanism beyond just contributions from new entrants is obscured whereas Social Security payouts have always been openly underwritten by incoming tax revenue and the interest on the Treasury bonds held by Social Security. Private sector Ponzi schemes cannot be sustained indefinitely without reducing payouts, whereas Social Security's benefits can theoretically always be sustained by raising taxes on new participants or reducing promised payouts. Because of these and other issues, Robert E. Wright calls Social Security a "quasi" pyramid scheme in his book, Fubarnomics.
In 2004, Urban Institute economists C. Eugene Steuerle and Adam Carasso created a Web-based Social Security benefits calculator. Using this calculator it is possible to estimate net Social Security benefits (i.e., estimated lifetime benefits minus estimated lifetime FICA taxes paid) for different types of recipients. In the book Democrats and Republicans – Rhetoric and Reality Joseph Fried used the calculator to create graphical depictions of the estimated net benefits of men and women who were at different wage levels, single and married (with stay-at-home spouses), and retiring in different years. These graphs vividly show that generalizations about Social Security benefits may be of little predictive value for any given worker, due to the wide disparity of net benefits for people at different income levels and in different demographic groups. For example, the graph below (Figure 168) shows the impact of wage level and retirement date on a male worker. As income goes up, net benefits get smaller – even negative.
In the next graph (Figure 165) the depicted net benefits are averaged for people turning age 65 anytime during the years 2005 through 2045. (In other words, the disparities shown are not related to retirement.) However, we do see the impact of gender and wage level. Because women tend to live longer, they generally collect Social Security benefits for a longer time. As a result, they get a higher net benefit, on average, no matter what the wage level.
"Two significant factors are evident: First, every column in Figure 166 depicts a net benefit that is higher than any column in Figure 165. In other words, the average married person (with a stay-at-home spouse) gets a greater benefit per FICA tax dollar paid than does the average single person – no matter what the gender or wage level. Second, there is only limited progressivity among married workers with stay-at-home spouses. Review Figure 166 carefully: The net benefits drop as the wage levels increase from $50,000 to $95,000; however, they increase as the wage levels grow from $5,000 to $50,000. In fact, net benefits are lowest for those earning just $5,000 per year."
The last graph shown (Figure 167) is a combination of Figures 165 and 166. In this graph it is very clear why generalizations about the value of Social Security benefits are meaningless. At the $95,000 wage level a married person could be a big winner – getting net benefits of about $165,000. On the other hand, he could lose an estimated $152,000 in net benefits if he remains single. Altogether, there is a "swing" of over $300,000 based upon the marriage decision (and the division of earnings between the spouses). In addition there is a large disparity between the high net benefits of the married person earning $95,000 ($165,152) versus the relatively low net benefits of the man or woman earning just $5,000 ($30,025 or $41,890, depending on gender). In other words, the high earner, in this scenario, gets a far greater return on his FICA tax investment than does the low earner.
In the book How Social Security Picks Your Pocket other factors affecting Social Security net benefits are identified: Generally, people who work for more than 35 years get a lower net benefit – all other factors being equal. People who do not live long after retirement age get a much lower net benefit. Finally, people who derive a high percentage of income from non-wage sources get high Social Security net benefits because they appear to be "poor," when they are not. The progressive benefit formula for Social Security is blind to the income a worker may have from non-wage sources, such as spousal support, dividends and interest, or rental income.
Proposals to reform of the Social Security system have led to heated debate, centering around funding of the program. In particular, proposals to privatize funding have caused great controversy.
Although Social Security is sometimes compared to private pensions, the two systems are different in a number of respects. It has been argued that Social Security is an insurance plan as opposed to a retirement plan. Unlike a pension, for example, Social Security pays disability benefits. A private pension fund accumulates the money paid into it, eventually using those reserves to pay pensions to the workers who contributed to the fund; and a private system is not universal. Social Security cannot "prefund" by investing in marketable assets such as equities, because federal law prohibits it from investing in assets other than those backed by the U.S. government. As a result, its investments to date have been limited to "special" non-negotiable securities issued by the U.S. Treasury, although some argue that debt issued by the Federal National Mortgage Association and other quasi-governmental organizations could meet legal standards. Social Security cannot by law invest in private equities, although some other countries (such as Canada) and some states permit their pension funds to invest in private equities. As a universal system, Social Security generally operates as a pipeline, through which current tax receipts from workers are used to pay current benefits to retirees, survivors, and the disabled. When there is an excess of taxes withheld over benefits paid, and by law this excess is invested in Treasury securities (not in private equities) as described above.
Two broad categories of private pension plans are "defined benefit pension plans" and "defined contribution pension plans." Of these two, Social Security is more similar to a defined benefit pension plan. In a defined benefit pension plan, the benefits ultimately received are based on some sort of pre-determined formula (such as one based on years worked and highest salary earned). Defined benefit pension plans generally do not include separate accounts for each participant. By contrast, in a defined contribution pension plan each participant has a specific account with funds put into that account (by the employer or the participant, or both), and the ultimate benefit is based on the amount in that account at the time of retirement. Some have proposed that the Social Security system be modified to provide for the option of individual accounts (in effect, to make the system, at least in part, more like a defined contribution pension plan). Specifically, on February 2, 2005, President George W. Bush made Social Security a prominent theme of his State of the Union Address. He described the Social Security system as "headed for bankruptcy", and outlined, in general terms, a proposal based on partial privatization. Critics responded that privatization would worsen the program's solvency outlook and would require huge new borrowing. See Social Security debate (United States).
Both "defined benefit" and "defined contribution" private pension plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which requires employers to provide minimum levels of funding to support "defined benefits" pensions. The purpose is to protect the workers from corporate mismanagement and outright bankruptcy, although in practice many private pension funds have fallen short in recent years. In terms of financial structure, the current Social Security system is analogous to an underfunded "defined benefit" pension ("underfunded" meaning not that it is in trouble, but that its "savings" are not enough to pay future benefits without collecting future tax revenues).
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has indicated that the Social Security Act has a moral purpose and should be liberally interpreted in favor of claimants when deciding what counted as covered wages for purposes of meeting the quarters of coverage requirement to make a worker eligible for benefits. That court has also stated: ". . . [T]he regulations should be liberally applied in favor of beneficiaries" when deciding a case in favor of a felon who had his disability payments retroactively terminated upon incarceration. According to the court, that the Social Security Act "should be liberally construed in favor of those seeking its benefits can not be doubted." “The hope behind this statute is to save men and women from the rigors of the poor house as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey's end is near.”
The constitutionality of Social Security is intricately linked to the evolving nature of Supreme Court jurisprudence on federal power (the 20th century saw a dramatic increase in allowed congressional action). When Social Security was first passed, there were significant questions over its constitutionality as the Court had found another pension scheme, the original Railroad Retirement Act, to violate the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Some, such as University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein and Robert Nozick, have argued that Social Security should be unconstitutional.
In the 1937 U.S. Supreme Court case of Helvering v. Davis, the Court examined the constitutionality of Social Security when George Davis of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston sued in connection with the Social Security tax. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts first upheld the tax. The District Court judgment was reversed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. Commissioner Guy Helvering of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (now the Internal Revenue Service) took the case to the Supreme Court, and the Court upheld the validity of the tax.
During the 1930s President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the midst of promoting the passage of a large number of social welfare programs under the New Deal and the High Court struck down many of those programs (such as the Railroad Retirement Act and the National Recovery Act) as unconstitutional. Modified versions of the affected programs were afterwards approved by the Court, including Social Security.
When Helvering v. Davis was argued before the Court, the larger issue of constitutionality of the old-age insurance portion of Social Security was not decided. The case was limited to whether the payroll tax was a suitable use of Congress's taxing power. Despite this, no serious challenges regarding the system's constitutionality are now being litigated, and Congress's spending power may be more coextensive, as shown in cases like South Dakota v. Dole during the Reagan Administration.
Because Social Security Numbers have become useful in identity theft and other forms of crime, various schemes have been perpetrated to acquire valid Social Security Numbers and related identity information.
In February 2006, the Social Security Administration received several reports of an email message being circulated addressed to “Dear Social Security Number And Card owner” and purporting to be from the Social Security Administration. The message informs the reader “that someone illegally is using your Social Security number and assuming your identity” and directs the reader to a website designed to look like Social Security’s Internet website.
“I am outraged that someone would target an unsuspecting public in this manner,” said Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart. “I have asked the Inspector General to use all the resources at his command to find and prosecute whoever is perpetrating this fraud.”
Once directed to the phony website, the individual is reportedly asked to confirm his or her identity with “Social Security and bank information.” Specific information about the individual’s credit card number, expiration date and PIN is then requested. “Whether on our online website or by phone, Social Security will never ask you for your credit card information or your PIN” Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart reported.
Social Security Administration Inspector General O’Carroll recommended people always take precautions when giving out personal information. “You should never provide your Social Security number or other personal information over the Internet or by telephone unless you are extremely confident of the source to whom you are providing the information,” O’Carroll said. See Press Release.
Given the vast size of the program, fraud occurs. The Social Security Administration has its own investigatory group, Continuing Disability Investigations (CDI). In addition, the Social Security Administration may request investigatory assistance from other federal law enforcement agencies including the Office of the Inspector General and the FBI.
Because of the importance of Social Security to millions of Americans, many direct-mail marketers packaged their mailings to resemble official communications from the Social Security Administration, hoping that recipients would be more likely to open them. In response, Congress amended the Social Security Act in 1988 to prohibit the private use of the phrase "Social Security" and several related terms in any way that would convey a false impression of approval from the Social Security Administration. The constitutionality of this law (42 U.S.C. § 1140) was upheld in United Seniors Association, Inc. v. Social Security Administration, 423 F.3d 397 (4th Cir. 2005), cert den 547 U.S. 1162; 126 S.Ct. 2346 (2006) (text at Findlaw).
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The 2011 annual report by the program's Board of Trustees noted the following: in 2010, 54 million people were receiving Social Security benefits, while 157 million people were paying into the fund; of those receiving benefits, 44 million were receiving retirement benefits and 10 million disability benefits. In 2011, there will be 56 million beneficiaries and 158 million workers paying in. In 2010, total income was $781.1 billion and expenditures were $712.5 billion, which meant a total net increase in assets of $68.6 billion. Assets in 2010 were $2.6 trillion, an amount that is expected to be adequate to cover the next 10 years. In 2023, total income and interest earned on assets are projected to no longer cover expenditures for Social Security, as demographic shifts burden the system. By 2035, the ratio of potential retirees to working age persons will be 37 percent — there will be less than three potential income earners for every retiree in the population. The trust fund would then be exhausted by 2036 without legislative action.
Social Security provides insurance for the possibility of living longer than expected, when a person has consumed all the resources saved for retirement. Annuity is one answer to such an eventuality. A person will buy an annuity and will pay a certain amount during his working life up to around 65 and then receive benefits in return upon retirement. The larger the premium, the larger the benefits he will receive when all the other things remain same. The second concept of consumption smoothing means that a person reduces his consumption when he is earning at the highest level and saves for the years when he will be old and not able to earn at this level but wants to achieve a certain level of consumption for him or his family. A risk averse person will be willing to buy an annuity and reduce his consumption in return for a guaranteed level of income after his retirement and for his family after his death. But this has some problems like adverse selection due to asymmetric information.
It means that in order to properly decide what amount of money one should save and how to invest so that its returns can be used in the old age for one’s benefits. These are difficult things and by joining the social security relieve one from these issues but still problem with government program remains that it will not satisfy the choices of many people. In the same manner, the supply side has to deal with the issues of moral hazard, adverse selection and for this purpose they want a lot of information on life expectancies in order to determine annuities. Annuities also have to pay to the sales people high commissions. But making compulsory to join for everyone in a program saves all these costs.
This is so planned that the benefits are lesser for the people with high income averages and high for the low income people. In this way, social security redistributes the incomes. Moreover, there is also intergenerational redistribution of income also. In the pay as you go system, the present generation of workers pays for the benefits of the earlier generation.
Social security affects the saving behavior of the people in three different ways. In the wealth substitution effect when a person is paying for his social security, it is expected that he will save less because he knows that in the event of his old age social security will take care of him. In the retirement effect, increases the savings because people would like to retire earlier and this will induce them to save more because now they have to pay for more years after retirement. The bequest effect also increases saving. Because people want to save for children, when they will pay for social security, this will decrease resources and they will save.
Social security has decreased poverty in the elderly population. During 1974-2003, the median real income among the population above 15 increased by 30% and in the population over 65 this increase was 45%. 
At present the limit is $110,100 in 2012. But if the cap is lifted and it includes all taxable income, it will be able to tackle the problem of increasing benefits, from an increase of revenues. A benefit of lifting the cap on the taxable income, but not increasing the benefits make some suggest that the revenue from high income earners will lead to solvency of social security.
Because the life expectancy has increased and will increase further, even in the absence of other demographic factors the retirement age must be increased to maintain a sustainable system (unless the cap on high-income exempt from being paid into Social Security is lifted). Since payments began in 1940, life expectancy has increased by 5.1 years for men and 6 for women, yet the retirement age has only been increased by 2 years. To make expected time in retirement the same as in 1940, the retirement age would have to be increased to 73. If the retirement age is increased to 68 it will increase the payroll tax by 0.52 percentage point but it still falls far short of required 3.5 percentage point increase in payroll tax. The cost will be more working years and less leisure and benefit will be that payroll tax will be slightly low.
At present, a retiree’s benefit is each year increased by the cost of living measured in CPI. According to some economists the CPI overestimates the price increases so it is appropriate to adjust benefits less than CPI (Boskin et al., 1998). If the benefits adjustments is delinked from CPI and it will reduce cost of living and the reduction in cost of living will increase benefits by 0.79 dollar for every dollar reduced.
At present, AIME is calculated on the average of 35 years of earnings, as discussed earlier, if the retirement is increased to 68 then the average for calculation of AIME may be increased to 38 years earnings. It will decrease the lifetime earnings and it will decrease the benefits. This would be equivalent to increasing the payroll tax by 0.26 percentage points. Another variant of this can be, now AIME uses the indexing based on average wage growth for 35 years but if it was based on CPI then it will also reduce the benefits. It will help in sustainable solvency because the wages tend to rise more as compared to prices. In order to help the poor, the lowest income 30% of the retirees may be given benefits based on wage indexing and all the rest on price indexing or the mix of both indexes.
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