Why We Should Care About Payroll Tax Holidays for High Earners

February 19, 2015

Last week, the top 1% of American workers finished paying their Social Security taxes for the year — an inflection point flagged and flogged by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. On the very same day, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the impending depletion of the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund.

These two events are related because the first provides a fresh perspective on the second, as well as a solution that’s not fresh, but seems sensible anyway.

As I’ve written before, the so-called DI trust fund will run out of reserves in 2016, unless Congress and the President agree on a solution. If they don’t, former workers with severe disabilities will receive only about 80% of their benefits — an average loss of nearly $244 per month.

That’s a real dent in the household budget. Average benefits now are $1,165 a month for disabled workers themselves and only $811 more for those with qualifying spouses and children.

The shortfall has been predicted for a long time, based mainly on demographic changes in the workforce, e.g., the aging of the baby boomer cohort, the large increase in the number of women working — and working long enough to qualify for SSDI.

Federal policy choices have contributed as well — specifically, the decision to take some pressure off the Old Age and Survivors trust fund by raising the eligibility age for full retirement benefits. But for that, many disabled baby boomers wouldn’t be receiving SSDI benefits any more.

All these factors explain why money is going out of the DI trust fund. The beginning of the payroll tax holiday for the very highest earners — and upcoming tax holidays for others who are doing quite well — explains why not as much money is flowing in.

As I’m sure you know, all of us who get paid for our work owe payroll taxes. If we’re employees, we pay 6.2% for Social Security. Our employers deduct it from our checks and pay the same amount. If we’re self-employed, we owe the whole 12.4%.

But the income subject to Social Security payroll taxes is capped — and always has been. For more than 30 years, the cap has been adjusted annually based on the average national wage index.

The index almost always rises, though rarely by a lot. The cap this year is $118,500 — up by $1,500 from last year.

But as everyone who hasn’t been living in a cave knows, more and more income is flowing to very high earners — those making a million or more a year. There were already six times as many of them in 2013 as in 1989, according to the Center for American Progress.

So more and more income escapes the Social Security tax. And it’s not only wage income enjoyed by the millionaires and billionaires, as this year’s cap indicates.

Class warfare alert! Not really. The point is that income inequality helps explain why the DI trust fund could soon run dry — and why the OASI trust fund will long about 2034 — unless our federal policymakers come up with a way to preserve the benefits that most workers and their families need.

A stopgap solution we already have — a relatively small increase in the share of payroll taxes going to the DI trust fund. But as I recently wrote, House Republicans have passed a rule to block any such shift, precedents notwithstanding.

They say they want a long-term solution to the whole solvency problem. Thus far, however, the most we can glimpse of what they have in mind comes from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, who opened last week’s hearing.

He trashed on the President, of course — in part, for proposing the payroll tax shift. But he also suggested that more workers with disabilities severe enough to meet SSDI’s strict standards could actually work because technology enables people to work from home, start their own businesses, etc.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times perceives a move to distinguish deserving from undeserving SSDI recipients. Perhaps. Or perhaps it means something that one of Enzi’s friendly witnesses advocated “early intervention,” i.e., rehabilitation and other services to keep people with “work-limiting conditions” in the labor force.

Bottom line, however, is that enabling some additional workers with disabilities to remain gainfully employed won’t do a whole heck of a lot to keep the DI trust fund solvent — and nothing at all to preserve full benefits for retirees.

Uncapping the payroll tax cap would. If Congress had simply scrapped the cap four years ago, it could have closed about 90% of the projected funding gap for 75 years.

Other cap-scrapping scenarios could have closed roughly 70-80%. These, which seem more politically realistic, would have boosted benefits for higher earners, as well as capturing more of their income. We’ve had cap-lifting, as well as cap-scrapping proposals too.

So there’s more than one way to minimize the projected shortfall. But any solution that leaves the cap alone is bound to severely reduce retirement benefits — perhaps deny some severely disabled workers and their families any benefits at all.

Not much of a worry for those folks whose tax holiday has already begun. But for the rest of us ….


Chained CPI and Social Security: Some Questions and Answers

April 22, 2013

Back in January I said I’d delve into the impacts of using the chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) to adjust Social Security benefits.

Then the President delivered a strong defense of “the commitments we make to each other,” including Social Security. So I put my draft post aside, figuring the chained CPI was off the bargaining table.

The more fool I. As you’ve probably read, it’s among the entitlement “reforms” in the President’s proposed budget.

The White House has taken great care to package it with other changes that would supposedly protect very elderly retirees and others who’ve relied on Social Security benefits for a long time. Also to shield programs that base eligibility on income.

But as economist/blogger Jared Bernstein said some time ago, the danger is that protections like these will all get swept aside, leaving only the benefits cuts.

Here then are some of the basic issues, as I see them. More to follow in a second post.

Why Do Anything About Social Security?

Our federal policymakers must do something about the Social Security retirement and disability insurance programs — and the sooner the better.

The Trust Fund will run out of money long about 2033. If nothing is done before then, the Social Security Administration will have to rely solely on what it continuously receives from payroll taxes.

That would be enough to pay about 75% of the benefits retirees would get if the Trust Fund still had reserves — a devastating loss for the nearly two-thirds who rely mainly or entirely on those benefits.

What Could Prevent the Shortfall?

At the risk of over-simplifying, our policymakers have two choices, not counting just letting the Trust Fund dry up. They could change the system to take in more or pay out less.

A switch to the chained CPI represents the latter approach because it rises more slowly than the currently-used index — the CPI-W. So, therefore, would the benefits that seniors, severely disabled former workers and eligible survivors receive.

Policymakers could instead “scrap the cap” on the amount of wage income subject to the tax that feeds the Social Security programs.

Or they could raise it enough to cover all but the top 10% of income, as it did in 1982 after Congress stepped in to shore up the program — not for the last time, incidentally.

High earners wouldn’t like this, of course. Nor perhaps would employers, since they’re responsible for half the payroll tax.

The National Federation of Independent Business has already said that its small business members “would violently oppose” it. These, as you know, are the “job creators” that our President and Congressional leaders are so fond of.

Is the Chained CPI More Accurate for Cost-of-Living Adjustments

Proponents of the chained CPI claim that it’s simply a more accurate cost-of-living measure because it reflects consumer responses to price increases. If the price of beef goes up, they buy less of it and more chicken. Etc.

Opponents argue that the index isn’t more accurate for seniors because they spend far higher portions of their income on items that aren’t amenable to switches, especially health care.

Even the CPI-W apparently understates their cost-of-living increases.

For some time now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has maintained an experimental cost-of-living index specifically for the elderly. Over the long haul, it has risen somewhat faster than the CPI-W. And Social Security’s chief actuary expects it will in the future.

We’d probably see similar results from a cost-of-living measure for people with severe disabilities, since many of them also have disproportionately high health care costs.

So if accuracy were the real issue, Congress would give BLS the funds to fully develop its experimental index, as The New York Times, among others, has suggested.

What Other Objections Have Opponents Raised?

The over-riding objection to the chained CPI switch is that it would effectively cut benefits. The loss in any one year would be small. But losses would mount up over time because the base for each cost-of-living adjustment, as well as the COLA itself, would be lower.

The average earner, says the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, would lose a total of $4,631 by age 75 — more than three months of benefits. Another 10 years and the loss would mount to nearly a year’s worth of benefits.

We need to recall that retired workers now get, on average, only $1,261 a month — and former workers in the Social Security Disability Insurance program somewhat less.

For 36% of seniors, Social Security provides at least 90% of income — not surprising, given what we know about retirement savings. It’s the sole source of income for 29% of the most elderly.

As I mentioned earlier, the President’s budget includes a “benefit enhancement” — popularly known as a bump up. It’s supposed to restore the cumulative losses for people who live long enough to benefit.

Most who do would still get less, according to the SSS Campaign.

Those who don’t are just out of luck, of course. And they’re disproportionately lower-income people, for whom every Social Security dollar counts.

UPDATE: After I published this, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued a brief that provides more detail on the impacts of the chained CPI on Social Security retirement benefits.

We Can Shore Up Social Security Without Harming Seniors

June 18, 2012

Every year for quite awhile now, the annual Social Security Trustees’ report evokes alarmist headlines.

“Social Security Still Going Broke (Again),” trumpets the National Taxpayers Union. Politico columnist John Goodman chimes in with “Social Security trustees: We’re going broke.”

And every year experts — and responsible news media too — explain that the Trust Fund isn’t going broke at all.

What with payroll taxes coming in, plus interest on the reserves invested in Treasury bonds, the Fund is now expected to have enough to pay full retirement benefits until 2033.

After that, it will still have enough to pay three-quarters of what retirees should get under current law until 2086.

This year’s report nevertheless projects a shortfall three years sooner than last year’s. Trustees blame the economy — specifically, lower real earnings due to the energy price spike and sluggish growth in average hours worked.

Republicans don’t fret such nuances. They blame the President for not reforming entitlement programs — as if this is something he could do without their votes in Congress.

Well, there are apparently proposals they’d be willing to support — unless they came from the White House, of course.

Back in 2010, House Majority Leader John Boehner teed up the idea of raising the retirement age again. Several leading House Democrats seemed willing to consider this, though it’s doubtful they’d stick their necks out now.

Three Republican Senators introduced an additional wrinkle last year. Once the retirement age gets to 70, index it to life expectancy — presumably in expectation that the average life span will continue to increase.

Average life span, note, not the life expectancy for low-income people. Overall life expectancy gains have masked significant — and growing — differences between richer and poorer Americans.*

The Senators also proposed changing the benefits formula so that “high earners” — those with average annual earnings of a mere $43,000 a year — would get less than they would under current law.

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney apparently has something similar in mind — for both the age increase and the curbed benefits growth for those “with higher incomes.” Needless to say, no details here.

The modified means test is one of several schemes for reducing Social Security pay-outs.

One that’s gotten more play across the political spectrum would adopt a different cost-of-living adjustment index.

The COLA is now linked to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) — a measure based on the costs of a standardized market basket of goods and services typically purchased by households in the groups named.

Economists of diverse political leanings have suggested switching to the so-called chained (or chain-weighted) Consumer Price Index.

The co-chairs of the President’s deficit reduction commission liked this idea. So did both the concurrent Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force and the Gang of Six Congress members who later thrashed out an abortive plan to end the debt ceiling standoff.

The chained CPI attempts to reflect consumers’ behavior in response to prices as well as prices themselves — specifically the fact that people change their buying habits when prices rise. When beef prices increase, they buy less steak and more chicken, etc.

A switch to this CPI would thus slow benefits growth. But would it accurately reflect retirees’ living costs? Apparently not.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been maintaining an experimental CPI for elderly Americans for about 30 years now. It’s found that the index rises somewhat faster than the CPI-W, mainly because seniors spend a greater share of their budgets on health care, housing and, to a lesser extent, heating oil.

The average gap between the indexes isn’t great for any one year, but it mounts up over time. Switch to an index that rises more slowly than the CPI-W and the gap between living costs and benefits increases.

So we’ve got objections to this, objections to that. Yet everyone agrees that Social Security needs some sort of fix. And the sooner it’s made, the less drastic it will have to be.

There’s another obvious fix. Scrap the cap, as it’s commonly referred to. In other words, subject all earnings to the payroll tax rather than give a free pass to everything over a fixed amount.

The cap is adjusted annually, using yet another CPI, but nothing’s been done since 1983 to capture the increasing amount of income flowing to a relatively small number of high-earners.

As a result, the tax has become more regressive. And the Trust Fund is losing revenues that could help it stay solvent — perhaps for 75 years, the Strengthen Social Security coalition says.

Scrapping the cap alone won’t solve the problem, however.

If that’s all that’s done, then the extra revenues gained would ultimately get paid out in higher benefits because, at this point, benefits are based partly on lifetime income subject to the payroll tax.

But one could adjust the formula so that contributions above the current cap didn’t count toward benefits — or did, but only partially, as Congressman Ted Deutsch (D-FL) has proposed.

Seems to me a whole lot fairer to lift the cap than to force people in their late 60s to continue working — or fall into poverty because they can’t get work if they lose their jobs.

Also fairer than reducing benefits across-the-board when we know — or ought to — that a large majority of seniors would be hard put to pay for basic living costs, as about one in six are even now.

* A recent brief by the Economic Policy Institute addresses in detail other arguments against raising the retirement age. Heavily sourced for those who want to plunge in even further.