Social Security to See Payout Exceed Pay-In This Year
By MARY WILLIAMS WALSH Published: March 24, 2010
This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, said that while the Congressional projection would probably be borne out, the change would have no effect on benefits in 2010 and retirees would keep receiving their checks as usual.
The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.
Analysts have long tried to predict the year when Social Security would pay out more than it took in because they view it as a tipping point — the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency, unless Congress strengthens the program’s finances.
“When the level of the trust fund gets to zero, you have to cut benefits,” Alan Greenspan, architect of the plan to rescue the Social Security program the last time it got into trouble, in the early 1980s, said on Wednesday.
That episode was more dire because the fund could have fallen to zero in a matter of months. But partly because of steps taken in those years, and partly because of many years of robust economic growth, the latest projections show the program will not exhaust its funds until about 2037.
Still, Mr. Greenspan, who later became chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, said: “I think very much the same issue exists today. Because of the size of the contraction in economic activity, unless we get an immediate and sharp recovery, the revenues of the trust fund will be tracking lower for a number of years.”
The Social Security Administration is expected to issue in a few weeks its own numbers for the current year within the annual report from its board of trustees. The administration has six board members: three from the president’s cabinet, two representatives of the public and the Social Security commissioner.
Though Social Security uses slightly different methods, the official numbers are expected to roughly track the Congressional projections, which were one page of a voluminous analysis of the federal budget proposed by President Obama in January.
Mr. Goss said Social Security’s annual report last year projected revenue would more than cover payouts until at least 2016 because economists expected a quicker, stronger recovery from the crisis. Officials foresaw an average unemployment rate of 8.2 percent in 2009 and 8.8 percent this year, though unemployment is hovering at nearly 10 percent.
The trustees did foresee, in late 2008, that the recession would be severe enough to deplete Social Security’s funds more quickly than previously projected. They moved the year of reckoning forward, to 2037 from 2041. Mr. Goss declined to reveal the contents of the forthcoming annual report, but said people should not expect the date to lurch forward again.
Stephanie Strom contributed reporting.