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Social Security: Long-Term Financing and Reform

Long-term Prospects

The changes made in 1983, including the move to an advance funded system, were believed at the time to have resolved the challenges created for Social Security by the aging of the population. Over subsequent years the board of trustees developed a rigorous method of financial accounting for the program that reported detailed projections for the next ten years (its short-range forecast) and a projection for the next seventy-five years (its long-range forecast) to capture the effects of demographic shifts, as well as alternative assumptions regarding economic factors, such as economic growth. By the end of the 1990s, they had settled on use of three alternative scenarios for the long-term forecasts: high-cost (pessimistic), intermediate-cost, and low-cost (optimistic). The long-term financial status of the program is summarized in a calculation of the actuarial balance for the seventy-five-year period. This is the difference between the summarized income ratio (the ratio of the present value of payroll taxes to the present value of taxable payroll) and the summarized cost rate (the ratio of the present value of expenditures to the present value of the taxable payroll) over the valuation period. This is essentially similar to any comparison that discounts future revenues and costs to determine long-term net revenues. When the summarized income rate equals or exceeds the summarized cost rate, the program is said to be in actuarial balance. If the difference is negative, the program is in actuarial imbalance with an actuarial gap, measured as a percent of taxable payroll. For example, if discounted revenues fall short of discounted benefit payments by an amount equal to 1 percent of taxable payroll, this is said to represent an actuarial gap of 1 percent. An immediate increase of payroll taxes by a total of 1 percentage point (half on employers and half on employees) would close the gap.

OASDI began to show a large actuarial imbalance by the late 1990s, equal to more than 2 percent of taxable payroll. As an alternative to tax increases, the gap could be closed by cutting benefits or increasing the rate of return earned on trust fund assets. In fact, many proposals for reforming Social Security include provisions that would simultaneously pursue all three alternatives: tax increases, benefit cuts, and higher earnings. In addition, some proposals would move Social Security operations closer to a private insurance fund model—or, indeed, replace Social Security with a privately operated (and even purely voluntary) retirement system. Before turning to such proposals, the underlying causes of the gap will be examined.

According to the Social Security Administration’s 1999 projections, on intermediate-cost assumptions the program achieved actuarial balance only for the first twenty-five years; over the fifty-year period the actuarial gap was -1.26; and it reached -2.07 for the entire seventy-five-year long-range forecast. However, on low-cost assumptions, the program maintained actuarial balance for the whole period, and on high-cost assumptions the program had an actuarial gap even for the first twenty-five-year period. This shows how critical the assumptions used in the forecasts are. Also, any crises are relatively far in the future; indeed, even on high-cost assumptions the actuarial imbalance is quite small for the first quarter of the twenty-first century. According to the 1999 projections, the Social Security trust funds would reach $2.3 trillion by 2008 on intermediate-cost assumptions, peak at more than $4.4 trillion in 2020, then decline to zero by 2035. Using low-cost assumptions, the trust fund would continue to grow over the entire seventy-five-year period, reaching more than $45 trillion by 2075. On the other hand, the trust fund would reach only $2.6 trillion in 2015 according to high-cost assumptions, and would then be depleted quickly, falling to zero by 2025. In other words, if Social Security is analyzed as if it were a private pension plan, it apparently will experience a crisis in 2025 or 2035, using high-cost or intermediate-cost assumptions. Most analysts focus on the intermediate-cost projections, according to which Social Security revenues would be sufficient to cover only three-fourths of expected expenditures after the mid-2030s.

The main demographic and economic assumptions that underlie the projections are fertility rates, immigration, labor force participation rates, longevity, growth of real wages, and taxable base. Together, fertility rates, immigration rates, longevity, and labor force participation rates determine the size of the pools of workers and retirees. The number of Social Security beneficiaries supported by workers will rise sharply in the early twenty-first century. For example, the number of OASDI beneficiaries per one hundred covered workers was thirty-one in 1975, but this will rise steadily between 2010 and 2075, when it will reach fifty-six, on intermediate-cost projections. To put it another way, while the United States had just over 3.3 workers per beneficiary in 2000, it may have fewer than 1.8 by 2075. Thus, the burden required of future workers to provide for OASDI beneficiaries could increase by almost a factor of two. On the other hand, workers in 2075 are projected to support fewer young people. If the population under age twenty is added to the population age sixty-five and over to obtain a dependent population (most of whom would not be expected to be working), the dependency ratio (the ratio of dependents to workers) actually peaked at 0.95 in 1965, fell to 0.71 by 1995, and will rise only slightly to 0.83 by 2075. In other words, the parents of the baby boomers supported more dependents in the mid-1960s than any generation is likely to support in the future.

In any case, as the number of beneficiaries rises relative to the number of workers paying Social Security taxes, the actuarial balance is negatively impacted. This results in part from a falling fertility rate, which reduces the size of the younger population from which workers can be drawn. The fertility rate (children born per woman) stood at just over 2 at the end of the 1990s and was projected to fall to 1.9 under the intermediate assumptions. If the fertility rate were to rise back to 3.7 (where it stood in 1957 during the baby boom), over 90 percent of the actuarial gap would be eliminated. On the other hand, a falling fertility rate can be offset by rising net immigration (since immigrants can add to the worker pool, paying payroll taxes) and by rising labor force participation rates (the number working or seeking work per one hundred population). In the late 1990s net (legal and illegal) immigration reached about 960,000 per year. In their projections, however, the trustees assumed that annual net immigration would fall to 900,000 and remain there throughout the seventy-five-year period. Each additional 100,000 net immigrants above that level would reduce the actuarial gap by about 0.07 percent of taxable payroll. The trustees also project that labor force participation rates for men will fall (from 75.5 percent in 1997 to 74 percent by 2075). In contrast, since World War II, labor force participation rates for women have risen sharply (reaching 60 percent in 1997). The trustees project that this will nearly level off (reaching only 60.6 percent by 2075). If male labor force participation rates did not fall, and if female rates continued to rise, some of the actuarial gap would be eliminated. Finally, the trustees project that death rates will fall by 34 percent over the seventy-five-year period, and each ten percentage point decrease in the death rate increases the long-range actuarial gap by about 0.34 percent of taxable payroll.

While most of the debate over the Social Security program’s solvency focuses on these unfavorable demographic trends, they were mostly known to the Greenspan Commission and the 1983 adjustments should have taken care of them. In fact, the reason for the looming Social Security crisis lies not in the demographics but in the increasingly pessimistic economic assumptions adopted by the trustees in their reports in the 1980s and 1990s. The main economic assumptions that lead to the financing gap are low growth of real wages and a falling taxable base. In 1999 the trustees projected that real wages would grow at only 0.9 percent per year. Real wage growth, in turn, is related to productivity gains. The trustees assume that productivity will grow at just 1.3 percent annually over the long-range period—well below long-term U.S. averages. If real wages were to grow at 2 percent per year, more than half of the actuarial gap would be eliminated. Finally, the trustees have projected that the taxable base will fall from 41 percent of GDP in 1999 to only 35 percent in 2075. This is for two reasons. First, Social Security taxes wages and certain kinds of self-employment income. Other types of income, such as interest income, are exempt. If these rise as a share of national income, the percent of income subject to the Social Security tax will fall. Second, payroll taxes are levied on only a portion of one’s wage income—determined by the contribution and benefit base. In 1999 OASDI taxes were applied only to the first $72,600 of employment income (the contribution and benefit base for that year; this base is increased each year with rising nominal average wages). The trustees have assumed that the taxable base will fall both because a smaller portion of income will be received in the form of wages and because a higher percent of wages will accrue to those with earnings above the contribution and benefit base. Therefore, by 2075, a little over a third of national income will be taxed to support OASDI beneficiaries.

Some analysts have questioned the usefulness of calculating actuarial balance over a seventy-five-year period. Projections of demographic trends and, more important, economic variables over such long periods is inherently difficult, and relatively small changes in assumptions can change the projections significantly. Some analysts have argued that projections are based on rather pessimistic economic assumptions. For example, according to intermediate-cost projections, real GDP and labor productivity will grow at only 1.3 percent per year. In fact, labor productivity has grown at a rate of approximately 2 percent per year since 1870, and at 2.7 percent per year between World War II and 1973, while real GDP grew at an annual rate of 3.7 percent from 1870 to 1973. Even if productivity and GDP grew at only two-thirds of long-term trends, Social Security’s financial problems would be eliminated. A counterargument is that U.S. economic performance since 1973 has generally been worse than long-term averages, and it is more prudent to project weak performance into the future than to presume that high growth might return. On the other hand, it has been noted that these pessimistic assumptions were incongruously adopted in the trustee forecasts during the ‘‘Goldilocks’’ 1990s expansion, when U.S. economic performance did return toward historical averages. Furthermore, the assumptions adopted may not be internally consistent. For example, if labor force growth rates are as low as the trustees have assumed, one might expect that real wage growth should be higher than the assumed 0.9 percent as excess demand for labor pushes up its relative return, and labor productivity growth should be higher as firms substitute capital for scarce labor.

More important, it is not clear that a national, public retirement system ought to operate as if it were a private pension fund, building reserves today that earn interest and can be depleted in future years. In, say, 2035 when the trust fund needs to sell securities to the Treasury, the Treasury will have to raise taxes, cut other spending, or sell securities to cover retirement of debt held by Social Security. Surprisingly, this is exactly what the government would have to do even if Social Security had no trust fund at all! Suppose Social Security were operated as a paygo system, with each year’s receipts equal to spending. When revenues began to fall below benefit expenditures, the government would have to increase taxes, reduce other spending, or issue securities to cover the difference. Some, including Milton Friedman, have concluded that the trust fund is nothing more than an ‘‘accounting gimmick,’’ because when Social Security begins to run deficits, existence of a trust fund cannot really provide for financing of its spending. Further, unlike a private firm, the U.S. government’s revenues are not market-determined. If necessary, the government can raise tax rates or can deficit-spend to ensure that it meets its Social Security obligations—things that private firms cannot do. Hence, while government cannot really build up a trust fund, it also does not need to do so.

What really matters is whether the economy will be able to produce a sufficient quantity of real goods and services to provide for both workers and dependents in, say, the year 2035. If it cannot, then regardless of Social Security’s finances, the real living standards of Americans in 2035 will have to be lower than they are today. Those who take this approach argue that any reforms to Social Security made today should focus on increasing the economy’s capacity to produce real goods and services, rather than on ensuring positive actuarial balances. For example, policies that might encourage public and private infrastructure investment will ease the future burden of providing for growing numbers of retirees. In a sense, this would be a real reform rather than a financial reform, although it is possible that financial reforms might encourage greater investment. Indeed, some advocates of privatization argue this will encourage more investment by entrepreneurs. However, even with the trustees’ rather pessimistic economic and demographic assumptions, real living standards are projected to rise substantially for both workers and retirees throughout the seventy-five-year, long-range period. Accordingly, Social Security does not face a real crisis even though it may face a financial crisis. Still, this may not be sufficiently comforting to future workers, because although they will enjoy a growing real economic pie, the share of the pie going to retirees will grow. In fact, the share of GDP going to OASDI will grow from about 5 percent in 2000 to 7 percent for the period between 2030 and 2075. On the one hand, this is a significant increase, but on the other hand, similar shifts have occurred in the past without generating an economic crisis.

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