Social Security Receipts, Outlays and Surplus 1940-2012

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 19th, 2013

History 101

Social Security is going Bankrupt because of an Aging Population, Inflation and Untrustworthy Politicians

Social Security introduced the era of Big Government.  When the Roosevelt administration passed it into law it faced fierce opposition.  For it wasn’t the job of the federal government to provide a pension.  If it was the Founding Fathers would have included it in the Constitution.  But they didn’t.  Thanks to the Great Depression, though, a serious crisis FDR didn’t let go to waste, FDR was able to change America.  By taking the federal government beyond the limits of the Constitution.

The fear was that it would grow into a massive program requiring more and more taxes to support it.  Which the FDR administration refuted in a 1936 pamphlet (see The 1936 Government Pamphlet on Social Security).

…beginning in 1949, twelve years from now, you and your employer will each pay 3 cents on each dollar you earn, up to $3,000 a year. That is the most you will ever pay.

Of course, that wasn’t true.  It was either a lie.  Or a disbelief that anyone would ever decouple the dollar from gold.  Or wishful thinking that we can trust politicians.  Whatever the reason the Social Security tax rate is a long way from that 3% today.  And the maximum earnings amount is a lot higher than $3,000.  But despite the tax rate and the maximum earnings amount soaring from these promised lows it’s still not enough.  For Social Security is struggling to avoid bankruptcy in the near future.  Because it has become a massive program requiring more and more taxes to support it.

Social Security is suffering from three major problems.  The first is an aging population (fewer people entering the work force to pay for the greater number of people leaving the workforce).  The second is inflation.  And the third is that politicians manage it.  Who just can’t control themselves around big piles of money.

The Social Security Surplus increased in the Nineties thanks to the Peace Dividend, Japan’s Lost Decade and the Dot-Com Boom

Social Security is off-budget.  Employers and employees pay into the program to provide for the program’s benefits.  These are dedicated taxes.  They are only to pay for Social Security benefits.  That is why it is off-budget.  They don’t mingle Social Security taxes with all the other taxes the government collects.  To pay for all the things in the federal budget.  Technically, those taxes are supposed to go into a retirement account that grows with interest.  And this big, growing pile of money is supposed to pay the benefits.  But in reality it doesn’t work this way.  The government collects taxes.  From these taxes they pay current benefits.  And anything left over, the Social Security surplus, goes into the Social Security Trust Fund.  We can see this graphically if we plot receipts, outlays and the surplus (see Table 2.1—RECEIPTS BY SOURCE: 1934–2017 and Table 3.1—OUTLAYS BY SUPERFUNCTION AND FUNCTION: 1940–2017 at FISCAL YEAR 2013 HISTORICAL TABLES).

Social Security Receipts Outlays Surplus 1940-2012

For the first 30 years or so of this program it hardly made a dent in our lives.  Small amounts were going in.  Small amounts were going out.  And small amounts were going into the trust fund.  Then a lot of people started retiring.  Just as birth control and abortion changed the family size.  And President Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold.  Allowing them to print money like never before.  Which, of course, depreciated the dollar.  This is why receipts and outlays started trending up after 1971 (when Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold).  To get a better look let’s zoom in and look at the years from 1970-2012.

Social Security Receipts Outlays Surplus 1970-2012

The Seventies were a horrible time economically.  As the government went all in with Keynesian economics.  Which resulted with high inflation and high unemployment.  And stagnant economic growth.  Stagflation.  And Social Security was in trouble.  Receipts were greater than outlays.  But not by very much.  Receipts and outlays may have been trending up but the surplus was pretty flat.  Until President Reagan and the Democrat Congress fixed Social Security to avoid bankruptcy.  After 1983 receipts trended up greater than outlays.  Which caused the surplus to trend up.  Thus saving Social Security.  For awhile.  Now let’s zoom in further to the years 1990-2012 to see what happened in the last two decades.

Social Security Receipts Outlays Surplus 1990-2012

President Reagan won the Cold War by spending more on defense than the Soviets could ever match.  At least not without starving her people to death.  And the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars) was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  In 1991 the Soviet Union was no more.  Creating a huge peace dividend for President Clinton.  Which coincided with the dot-com boom.  And Japan’s Lost Decade (Japan’s economic woes were America’s prosperity).  Making the Nineties a very good time economically.  And that healthy economic activity translated into a nice uptrend in the Social Security surplus.  However, low interest rates and irrational exuberance fed the dot-com boom.  It was not real economic growth.  It was a bubble.  And when it burst it gave George W. Bush one painful recession at the start of his presidency.  Which was compounded by the tragedy of 9/11.  Causing a fall in economic activity.  Which caused Social Security receipts to fall.  While outlays continued to grow.  Causing a decline in the Social Security surplus.  Once again cuts in tax rates restored economic activity.  And the Social Security surplus.  Which continued until another bubble burst.  This one was a housing bubble.  Caused by President Clinton with his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Where his justice department pressured lenders to qualify the unqualified.  And when the housing bubble burst into the Subprime Mortgage Crisis giving us the Great Recession receipts fell while outlays increased.  Sending the surplus into a freefall.

Social Security is Doomed to Fail because you just can’t Trust Politicians around Great Big Piles of Money

There is both a Social Security tax rate.  And a maximum amount of income to tax.  Both of which they have had to increase to keep up with inflation.  To make up for that aging population.  And to offset the corrupting influence of politicians around big piles of money.  And contrary to that 1936 pamphlet those tax rates started rising early.  And often (see Historical Social Security Tax Rates).

Social Security Surplus and Tax Rate

The Social Security tax rate rose as high as 12.4%.  Which is a 313% increase from the maximum amount guaranteed in that 1936 pamphlet.  And this great upward trend began in the Fifties.  Continuing through the Sixties.  In fact most of the increases came before Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold.  Showing what a horrible job the government actuaries did in crunching the numbers for this program.  As it turned into exactly what the opponents said it would.  A massive program requiring more and more taxes to support it.  And President Obama reducing the tax rate from 12.4% to 10.4% didn’t help the surplus any.  Or the solvency of Social Security.

Social Security Surplus and Maximum Earnings

While the tax rate began rising in the Fifties the maximum taxable earnings amount didn’t.  This amount was pretty flat and able to produce a surplus until 1971.  When President Nixon unleashed the inflation monster by decoupling the dollar from gold.  And the only way to produce a surplus after that was by continuously increasing the maximum earnings amount.  Further proving what a horrible job the government actuaries did in crunching the numbers for this program.  But why are they projecting Social Security will go bankrupt after raising both the tax rate and the maximum taxable earnings amount?  For despite all of the ups and downs there has been a surplus throughout the life of the program.  Some seventy years of a surplus and the miracle of compound interest should have built up quite a nest egg in the Social Security Trust Fund.  But it hasn’t.  Why?  Well, we can see what it could have been.  If we take each year’s surplus (starting in 1940) and add it to an account earning interest compounded annually at an interest rate of 3% through 1971 and 6% after 1971 (to account for inflation) it would look something like this.

Social Security Surplus Earning Compound Interest

Note that these amounts are in millions of dollars.  So at the end of 2012 the ending balance in the trust fund would be $16.5 trillion.  Which is large enough to wipe out the entire federal debt.  From 1980 through 2008 the surplus grew on average 8% each year.  If we assume this growth through 2050 that would take the trust fund to $184.5 trillion.  In 2075 it would be $960.9 trillion.  In 2076 it would be $1.03 quadrillion.  Or $1,027.3 trillion.  With this phenomenal growth based on a realistic 6% interest rate why is Social Security going bankrupt?

Because there isn’t a big pile of money in the Social Security Trust Fund earning compound interest.  The money goes in.  And the government takes it out.  Leaving behind treasury securities.  IOUs.  They raid the Social Security trust fund to pay for other on-budget government expenditures.  With the off-budget surplus.  Hiding the true size of the federal deficit.  And putting Social Security on the path to bankruptcy.  Because you can’t loan money to yourself.  You can only take money meant for one thing and spend it on another.  Leaving that first thing unpaid.  This is Social Security.  And why it was doomed to fail from the beginning.  Because you just can’t trust politicians around great big piles of money.

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