Part 1 of 4: Social Security not deal it once wasAnalysis: Historic shift will get worse for future retirees
WASHINGTON – People retiring today are part of the first generation of workers who have paid more in Social Security taxes during their careers than they will receive in benefits after they retire.
By: Associated Press, INFORUM
Editor's note: In a four-part series continuing through August, The Associated Press examines the changing dynamics of the government retirement program and what it means for workers and present and future beneficiaries. This first story examines whether Social Security is still a good deal, and for whom.
WASHINGTON – People retiring today are part of the first generation of workers who have paid more in Social Security taxes during their careers than they will receive in benefits after they retire. It’s a historic shift that will only get worse for future retirees, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Previous generations got a much better bargain, mainly because payroll taxes were very low when Social Security was enacted in the 1930s and remained so for decades.
“For the early generations, it was an incredibly good deal,” said Andrew Biggs, a former deputy Social Security commissioner who is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The government gave you free money and getting free money is popular.”
If you retired in 1960, you could expect to get back seven times more in benefits than you paid in Social Security taxes, and more if you were a low-income worker, as long you made it to age 78 for men and 81 for women.
As recently as 1985, workers at every income level could retire and expect to get more in benefits than they paid in Social Security taxes, though they didn’t do quite as well as their parents and grandparents.
A married couple retiring last year after both spouses earned average lifetime wages paid about $598,000 in Social Security taxes during their careers. They can expect to collect about $556,000 in benefits, if the man lives to 82 and the woman lives to 85, according to a 2011 study by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.
Social Security benefits are progressive, so most low-income workers retiring today still will get slightly more in benefits than they paid in taxes. Most high-income workers started getting less in benefits than they paid in taxes in the 1990s, according to data from the Social Security Administration.
The shift among middle-income workers is happening just as millions of baby boomers are reaching retirement, leaving relatively fewer workers behind to pay into the system. It’s coming at a critical time for Social Security, the federal government’s largest program.
The trustees who oversee Social Security say its funds, which have been built up over the past 30 years with surplus payroll taxes, will run dry in 2033 unless Congress acts. At that point, payroll taxes would provide enough revenue each year to pay about 75 percent of benefits.
To cover the shortfall, future retirees probably will have to pay higher taxes while they are working, accept lower benefits after they retire or some combination of both.
“Future generations are going to do worse because either they are going to get fewer benefits or they are going to pay higher taxes,” said Eugene Steuerle, a former Treasury official who has studied the issue as a fellow at the Urban Institute.
How can you get a better return on your Social Security taxes?
Live longer. Benefit estimates are based on life expectancy. For those turning 65 this year, Social Security expects women to live 20 more years and men to live 17.8 more.
Certner noted that private pensions, retirement savings and home values took a big hit when the economy collapsed, putting a dent in the retirement plans of many Americans.
About 56 million people now collect Social Security benefits, and that number is projected to grow to 91 million in 2035. Monthly benefits average $1,235 for retired workers and $1,111 for disabled workers. Social Security provides most older Americans a majority of their income. About one-quarter of married couples and just under half of single retirees rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income, according to the Social Security Administration.
“Social Security is what’s carrying me,” said Neta Homier, a 79-year-old retired hospital worker from Toledo, Ohio. “There’s no way I would have made it without it. The kids, they’re on their own, now, and I’m not going to be a burden for them. That’s what it would have been if I hadn’t had Social Security.”
At 52, Anthony Riley of Columbus, Ohio, has a different perspective. Riley said he has a private retirement account because he worries that Social Security won’t provide adequate benefits throughout his retirement.
At 22, Mackenzie Millan of Los Angeles has even greater doubts about whether Social Security will be a good deal for her.
“The money that I put aside now, it’s not like that money is going to be waiting for me. That money is going toward someone else,” the recent college graduate said. “If I wanted Social Security 50 years from now, when I wanted to retire, I would have to hope that someone else is still working and putting money aside in their paychecks to pay for my Social Security at that point.”
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