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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Increasing the Social Security Payroll Tax Base: Options and Effects on Tax Burdens

Thomas L. Hungerford
Specialist in Public Finance

According to the Social Security Trustees, assets in the two Social Security trust funds will be exhausted by 2037, and, thereafter, Social Security payroll tax revenues will cover about threequarters of promised benefits. Over the past decade several proposals have been put forward which could help to close the Social Security program’s long-term financing gap. One proposal would increase the Social Security payroll tax base so that 90% of covered earnings are taxable— the same proportion as in 1982. This policy would increase the payroll taxes paid by higherearning workers and not affect workers earning less than the current Social Security maximum taxable limit, which is $106,800 in 2011.

Some analysts have proposed raising the Social Security payroll tax base and reducing the payroll tax rate. This policy would increase the taxes paid by higher-earning workers and reduce taxes paid by low- and middle-income workers. This policy proposal could raise revenue for the Social Security program or be revenue neutral.

Although the legislated Social Security payroll tax rate is 12.4%, the average Social Security payroll tax is slightly progressive throughout the bottom 80% of the income distribution in that lower-income families pay a lower proportion of income in payroll taxes than higher-income families. At the higher-income levels—the top 20%—the payroll tax is regressive in that the proportion of income paid in payroll taxes falls as income rises. The richest 1% of American families pay a smaller proportion of their income in payroll taxes than the poorest 20% of families.

Three policy options, which raise the payroll tax base, are examined; two of the policies also provide tax relief to low- and middle-income workers. Each of the three policies reduces the regressivity of the payroll tax at the upper end of the income distribution. Currently, less than 10% of families contain a worker earning more than the maximum taxable limit. Consequently, over 90% of families would be unaffected by increasing the maximum taxable limit. And if this change were combined with a payroll tax rate reduction, over 90% of families would pay lower payroll taxes.

It has been argued that the revenue increases from raising the payroll tax base would be significantly less than expected because of indirect behavioral changes by workers. These predicted behavioral effects would reduce taxable earnings, the proportion of family income subject to payroll taxes, and tax revenue. But recent research raises doubts concerning this position and suggests these behavioral effects would likely be negligible.

Date of Report: January 10, 2011
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: RL33943
Price: $29.95

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