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Friday, January 13, 2012

Social Security Reform: Current Issues and Legislation

Dawn Nuschler
Specialist in Income Security

Social Security reform has been an area of interest to policymakers for many years. In 2011, Social Security program changes were discussed during negotiations on legislation to increase the federal debt limit and reduce federal budget deficits. In August 2011, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25) established a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction tasked with recommending ways to reduce the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over the fiscal year period 2012 to 2021. Social Security program changes were among the measures discussed by the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee, however, did not reach agreement on a legislative proposal by the November 23, 2011, statutory deadline.

The spectrum of ideas for reform ranges from relatively minor changes to the pay-as-you-go social insurance system enacted in the 1930s to a redesigned, “modernized” program based on personal savings and investments modeled after IRAs and 401(k)s. Proponents of the fundamentally different approaches to reform cite varying policy objectives that go beyond simply restoring long-term financial stability to the Social Security system. They cite objectives that focus on improving the adequacy and equity of benefits, as well as those that reflect different philosophical views about the role of the Social Security program and the federal government in providing retirement income. However, the system’s projected long-range financial outlook provides a backdrop for much of the Social Security reform debate in terms of the timing and degree of recommended program changes.

The Social Security Board of Trustees projects that the trust funds will be exhausted in 2036 and that an estimated 77% of scheduled annual benefits will be payable with incoming receipts at that time (under the intermediate projections). The primary reason is demographics. Between 2010 and 2030, the number of people aged 65 and older is projected to increase by 78%, while the number of workers supporting the system is projected to increase by 7%. In addition, the trustees project that the system will run a cash flow deficit in each year of the 75-year projection period. When current Social Security tax revenues are insufficient to pay benefits and administrative costs, federal securities held by the trust funds are redeemed and Treasury makes up the difference with other receipts. When there are no surplus governmental receipts, policymakers have three options: raise taxes or other income, reduce other spending, or borrow from the public (or a combination of these options).

Public opinion polls show that less than 50% of respondents are confident that Social Security can meet its long-term commitments. There is also a public perception that Social Security may not be as good a value for future retirees. These concerns, and a belief that the nation must increase national savings, have led to proposals to redesign the system. At the same time, others suggest that the system’s financial outlook is not a “crisis” in need of immediate action. Supporters of the current program structure point out that the trust funds are projected to have a positive balance until 2036 and that the program continues to have public support and could be affected adversely by the risk associated with some of the reform ideas. They contend that only modest changes are needed to restore long-range solvency to the Social Security system.

During the 111th Congress, four Social Security reform measures were introduced. None of the measures received congressional action. During the 112th Congress, several Social Security reform measures have been introduced; none have received congressional action.

Date of Report: December 21, 2011
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: RL33544
Price: $29.95

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