Dawn Nuschler Specialist in Income Security
Alison M. Shelton Analyst in Income Security
John J. Topoleski Analyst in Income Security
Social Security covers about 94% of all workers in the United States. Most of the remaining 6% of non-covered workers are public employees. About one-fourth of state and local government employees are not covered by Social Security for various historical and other reasons. The 1935 Social Security Act did not extend coverage to state and local government workers. Since the 1950s, Congress has passed laws to allow state and local government employees who have public pensions to elect Social Security coverage through employee referendums. In 1990, Congress made Social Security coverage mandatory, starting in July 1991, for most state and local government employees who are not covered by an alternative public pension plan.
Some have proposed extending mandatory Social Security coverage to all newly hired public employees. Recently, this proposal was included in the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force and the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), mandatory Social Security coverage of newly hired state and local government workers would close an estimated 8% to 9% of Social Security’s projected average 75-year funding shortfall (the greatest positive financial effect would occur during the initial period following implementation) and extend Social Security trust fund solvency by 2 to 3 years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the proposal would increase net federal revenues by $24 billion over 5 years and $96 billion over 10 years.
Supporters of mandatory Social Security coverage maintain that it would result in better benefit protections for workers and their families through the provision of dependents’ and survivors’ benefits and full cost-of-living adjustments under Social Security. Opponents argue that mandatory coverage would not necessarily provide better benefit protections compared with existing non-covered pension plans; the net effect on a worker’s total benefits would depend in part on how state and local governments modify their existing pension plans in response to mandatory coverage. Moreover, Congress could enact changes to the Social Security contribution and benefit structure that result in higher payroll taxes and lower benefits for current workers in response to Social Security’s projected long-range funding shortfall. Supporters point out that, unlike state and local pension plan coverage, Social Security coverage is portable (i.e., coverage is transferrable as a worker moves from job to job). Mandatory Social Security coverage would prevent gaps in coverage that can adversely affect workers, especially those who become disabled. Some supporters of mandatory coverage argue that Social Security reduces poverty among retired and disabled workers, spouses, dependent children, and the survivors of deceased workers. They argue that all workers should share in providing this poverty reduction, which has national benefits.
Many state and local government employers and employees oppose mandatory Social Security coverage, even if it were extended only to newly hired employees. State and local governments are concerned that mandatory coverage could increase pension system costs significantly at a time when many state and local pension systems are struggling financially. The extent of cost increases would depend on how states and localities adjust their existing pension plans in response to mandatory Social Security coverage. Some state and local government employees and advocacy groups express concern that existing non-covered pension plans, including those designed for specific categories of workers such as fire fighters and police officers, could be “undermined” if Social Security coverage were mandated.
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