Here’s how President Barack Obama answered CBS’s Scott Pelley’s question about whether he could guarantee that Social Security checks would go out on August 3, the day after the government is supposed to reach its debt limit: “I cannot guarantee that those checks [he included veterans and the disabled, in addition to Social Security] go out on August 3rd if we haven't resolved this issue. Because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it.”
And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner echoed the president on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday implying that if a budget deal isn’t reached by August 2, seniors might not get their Social Security checks.
Well, either Obama and Geithner are lying to us now, or they and all defenders of the Social Security status quo have been lying to us for decades. It must be one or the other.
Here’s why: Social Security has a trust fund, and that trust fund is supposed to have $2.6 trillion in it, according to the Social Security trustees. If there are real assets in the trust fund, then Social Security can mail the checks, regardless of what Congress does about the debt limit.
President Obama’s budget director, Jack Lew, explained all this last February in USA Today:
"Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries. … Even though Social Security began collecting less in taxes than it paid in benefits in 2010, the trust fund will continue to accrue interest and grow until 2025, and will have adequate resources to pay full benefits for the next 26 years."
Notice that Lew said nothing about raising the debt ceiling, which was already looming, and it shouldn’t matter anyway because Social Security is “entirely self-financing” and off budget. What could be clearer?
Unconvinced, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a subsequent column questioning Lew’s assertions. “This [Lew’s] claim is a breathtaking fraud. The pretense is that a flush trust fund will pay retirees for the next 26 years. Lovely, except for one thing: The Social Security trust fund is a fiction. … In other words, the Social Security trust fund contains—nothing.”
Social Security status-quo defenders have assured us for the past 25 years that Social Security is fully funded—for the next 25 years, or 2036. So if there are real assets in the Social Security Trust Fund—$2.6 trillion allegedly—then how could failure to reach a debt-ceiling agreement possibly threaten seniors’ Social Security checks?
The answer is that the federal government has borrowed all of that trust fund money and spent it, exactly as Krauthammer asserted. And the only way the trust fund can get some cash to pay Social Security benefits is if the federal government draws it from general revenues or borrows the money—which, of course, it can’t do because of the debt ceiling.
Thus, the answer to my initial question is that the president is telling the truth now in the sense that he is conceding there’s no money in the trust fund to pay benefits; but he and other Social Security status-quo defenders have been deceiving the public for decades.
And here’s the real irony: Anytime someone has proposed personal Social Security retirement accounts as a way to ensure that people have real assets in their own account without bankrupting the government or future generations, defenders of the status quo would pounce, calling such a reform, in Al Gore’s words, a “risky scheme.” They have vociferously claimed that those trust fund assets are real and that only by having the government manage and control the accounts would seniors be guaranteed to get their retirement checks.
Well, we have the status quo and seniors may not get their checks. Had we shifted to a system of pre-funded, personal Social Security retirement accounts years ago, this wouldn’t even be an issue—because retirees would have their own money in their own accounts.
Yes, the accounts likely would have declined when the stock market went down, though not if the reform were structured like three Texas counties did 30 years ago (see here). But in case you haven’t noticed, Social Security revenues also declined during the economic downturn—because fewer people were working—so that the government is paying out more in benefits than it is taking in, and hence needing additional federal revenues, a fact admitted by Lew.
If the budget crisis has done nothing else, it has exposed the decades-long lie about the solvency of the Social Security trust fund. The trust fund may be backed by the “full faith and credit of the federal government,” as defenders constantly remind us, but if it had real assets the president wouldn’t be talking about seniors missing their checks.
(Update: For a second opinion, on July 16 an editorial in the Wall Street Journal made the same argument as this piece, even to the similar title.)
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. http://twitter.com/MerrillMatthews
- Social Security trust fund
- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner
- President Barack Obama
- Face the Nation
- payroll taxes
- Charles Krauthammer