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Will Social Security Be Around When I Need It?

Recently, six members of the House of Representatives, led by Representative Reid Ribble (R - WI), introduced the Save Our Social Security Act (also known as the S.O.S. Act). Key provisions of the Act, with my thoughts, are outlined below. Although the Act may not pass in the near future, it begins to set the template for changes which will be required to keep Social Security afloat.

A higher wage base

A significant provision of the Act is the proposal to expand the maximum wage base Social Security taxes are applied to. In annual increases from now until 2020, the Act would nearly double the maximum compensation subject to Social Security taxation.

This is by far the easiest and most commonly proposed fix to Social Security. It continues to baffle me why Social Security taxes have a wage base limit at all. In the search for new revenues to fund Social Security, this is low hanging fruit.

Delayed full retirement age

The Act proposes moving the age at which recipients can collect a full Social Security retirement benefit from 67 to 69. Reduced benefits will still be collectible at earlier ages, including age 62. Discussed for many years, this is another easy to understand fix. Many Social Security experts believe that the full benefit age needs to be increased soon for demographic as well as financial reasons. Americans are living longer and enjoying better health. As a result, we will all probably need to work longer.

COLA change

A change in the method used to calculate cost of living adjustment (COLA) increases from CPI-W to C-CPI-U. No surprise, the new method is expected to result in lower COLA increases. A minor adjustment overall and one likely to cause very little pain to existing as well as future recipients.

What else could happen?

The S.O.S. Act charts a course of least resistance in the changes it proposes to keep Social Security solvent. If these changes don't result in a meaningful improvement in Social Security's funding outlook, the following more painful changes may be in the offing:

  • Means testing. Most government benefits are subject to some sort of means testing formula to ensure that they are only received by those who truly need them. Social Security benefits are still collectible by all Americans with an eligible work history, regardless of their compensation in retirement. Subjecting Social Security applicants to some sort of means testing seems reasonable and overdue.
  • Increases to the payroll tax. It is probably just a matter of time until the payroll tax percentage itself will be increased. This adjustment is most painful to all, businesses as well as individuals.
  • Longevity indexing. Since we all can expect to live longer than prior generations, at some point in time it will probably make sense to adjust the benefit we earn through Social Security to that longer life expectancy. The result will be a smaller monthly benefits.
  • Incentives to keep working. Most of the proposals for change are of the "stick" variety as opposed to the "carrot". Many experts believe that Social Security taxes should not be deducted from older Americans (e.g.; those age 65 and older) who choose to work to incent them to continue working.

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