Instead of giving up of Social Security, Millennials should push an easy fix for the so-called funding crisis: lifting the earnings cap.
As a public policy student, I’m used to hearing lively debates and diverse perspectives from my professors, fellows students, and course materials. There is one issue on which they consistently agree: apparently, Social Security cannot work for my generation. Polling data confirms this sentiment. Between half and three-quarters of Millennials do not expect Social Security to exist when we retire. Despite all of the rhetoric and doubts, I know that Social Security can work for Millennials – but it’s crucial that we fix the program.
I learned the importance of Social Security during my summer internship at The Alliance for Retired Americans, which was part of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Summer Academy program. I learned that Social Security is the primary source of income for most seniors. The internship also taught me all about the program and its current issues, inside and out.
To give some background, Social Security is the widest reaching public benefit program in the United States. Starting at age 62, almost all Americans are eligible to receive monthly checks based on the amount they or their spouse paid into the program during their working years, with the benefit amount increasing for those who delay taking payments. The benefits of Social Security for retirement must be earned – 12.4% of nearly everyone’s yearly income below an annually adjusted cap is taxed to fund the program. For 2014, the cap is set at $117,000. Any income above $117,000 is completely ignored, so a person earning $1,000,000 will pay a 2.2% tax rate in 2014 and person earning five-figures will pay a 12.4% rate. To put it another way, a millionaire finishes paying her Social Security taxes by mid-February (at the latest) while the average American pays those taxes all year long.
Currently, there is a funding gap, which is often overstated as a “crisis.” Based on the Social Security Administration’s own predictions, only about three-quarters of benefits can be paid after 2033. Poor planning regarding the retirement of the Baby Boomers did not cause this gap. In preparation for the retirement of the Baby Boomers, we amended Social Security during the 1970s and 1980s; their retirement is almost entirely funded. This lapse (“the crisis”) is directly linked to the unintended consequences of reforming the taxable earnings cap in the 1970s.
Since 1975, Congress has linked annual cap increases to the average growth in wages. Post-World War II wage growth has consistently favored higher earners, who already had total incomes above the cap. This led to two disturbing trends, the first of which is shown in this chart, taken directly from the Social Security Administration’s website:
As seen here, the cap used to reduce taxes for many more Americans, but since the 1970s it's leveled out from reducing taxes for the top 15% to helping just the top 6%, establishing its status as a tool for the mega-rich to avoid paying taxes. Since the wealthiest Americans have benefitted most from wage growth in recent years, the amount of income that is untaxable for Social Security purposes has increased from 10% to 17% since 1975. In essence, the funding gap is a result of an antiquated and poorly calculated tax break that allows the wealthiest Americans to avoid paying their fair share.
Social Security can remain in perpetuity if we scrap the cap. Historically, regular adjustments have been applied to program to ensure its continued solvency, and this obvious change should be no different.
Millennials: I urge you look more deeply into this issue and better understand the facts as the debate continues. Most of the money that our grandparents use to pay their bills comes from Social Security, so simply letting the program crumble would have disastrous effects. As a generation, we are far less likely to have union-backed pensions and extra money for savings. Fixing Social Security could be more necessary for our generation’s retirement stability than any before us.
Brian Lamberta is an urban studies and public policy student at the CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College and currently serves as the Northeast Regional Communications Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.