STARKVILLE — American voters occupied themselves during the 2020 presidential and congressional campaign cycle talking about COVID-19, the Amy Coney Barrett nomination to the Supreme Court, national social justice strife and an uncertain economy.

What didn’t get much attention or discussion is the looming national crisis facing the Social Security system. For all their flowery talk of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Social Security was not the province of our nation’s founders.

Social Security was the product of the Great Depression in 1935. Initially covering private-sector workers, it was expanded in 1939 to cover dependents when the worker retired or died.

The 1950s saw Social Security substantially expanded to cover farmers and household workers, the military, most public employees (state and local) and preachers. By 1954, disability insurance was added to the program.

The next major expansion of Social Security came in 1965, when Medicare was enacted to provide health care for those aged 65 and older. In 1973, additional Medicare disability benefits were provided to certain individuals under age 65.

How many Americans are impacted by Social Security? According to the most recent trustees’ report in April, the program at the end of 2019 “provided benefit payments to about 64 million people: 48 million retired workers and dependents of retired workers, 6 million survivors of deceased workers, and 10 million disabled workers and dependents of disabled workers.” In all, an estimated 178 million people had earnings covered by Social Security and paid payroll taxes on those earnings. The total cost of the program in 2019 was about $1 trillion. Total income was also $1 trillion.

So, what’s the problem? In 1950, 120 workers were paying into the Social Security system for every individual drawing a pension from it. By the year 2035, it is projected that there will be 2.3 workers contributing to every worker drawing a pension. By 2035, the number of Americans 65 and older will increase from approximately 56 million today to more than 78 million as the baby boomers reach that milestone.

What does that imply? Well, think of it this way: About 25% of Social Security recipients report it as their sole source of income. About 65% of recipients report Social Security as 50% or more of their income.

The Washington-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) analyzed the 2020 trustees’ report and offered this dismal assessment: 1) Social Security will be insolvent in 2035; 2) It will run cash deficits of more than $2 trillion over the next decade, the equivalent of 2% of payroll or 0.7 percent of gross domestic product; and (3) Its finances are deteriorating. Between 2010 and 2019, the program’s actuarial deficit grew by nearly 50%, from 1.92% of payroll to 2.78%. Over the past year, it has grown by an additional 15% to 3.21% of payroll.

Oh, yes, and none of those numbers assume the fiscal impacts of COVID-19 on the program’s finances. Suffice to say those impacts will be substantial and will likely accelerate Social Security problems.

Finally, what happens if Social Security becomes insolvent? The CRFB projects that “upon insolvency, all (Social Security) beneficiaries will face a 21% across-the-board benefit cut that will ultimately grow to 27%.

There was a time when Social Security and Medicare were the “third rail” of American politics. Touch it, mess with it, let it fail, and immediate political death followed. Whether or not that’s still true, we shall see.

Sid Salter is director of the Office of University Relations at Mississippi State University. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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