Just this month, the Social Security Administration announced that Social Security benefits for over 66 million Americans will increase by 3.2 percent in 2024.1 For those who receive benefits, this cost-of-living adjustment will be a welcome step to help them deal with the impact of inflation.2 Social Security is perhaps the most successful government program ever, and one of the most popular.3 Historically, the program has generally exercised good stewardship and has also promoted the common good. When we think about the idea of stewardship, we think about taking care of the resources that God has given us. For over eighty years, the Social Security program has taken relatively good care of its resources, particularly compared with other government programs that we sometimes hear about.
Social Security is most well-known for its payments to senior citizens, but it also provides some benefits to those who are disabled, widows, and dependent children. Although Social Security was never designed to provide 100 percent of a person’s income, the program has lifted millions out of poverty.4 Most Americans pay taxes into the system over the course of their lifetimes, with the anticipation that one day they will receive benefits themselves. While many see Social Security as analogous to a personal pension plan, the structure of Social Security is quite different. With a personal pension, one saves money (perhaps with an employer match) that can be invested in different financial instruments such as stocks and bonds. The money an individual has saved (along with any accumulated gains) is the money that they can access when they retire.
Instead, Social Security is designed as a “pay-as-you-go” system, where the current payments to recipients are funded by current taxpayers. The government has not saved the money that a senior citizen has paid into the system over their lifetime; instead, their benefits are paid for by today’s workers. The next generation of retirees will be paid by the contributions of the next generation’s workers. Such a system can work well under certain circumstances and with a financially prudent design. Good stewardship requires that the system be designed correctly and that individuals can completely count on those future benefits.
The future of Social Security, however, doesn’t appear to be as bright as it was in the past. Currently, Social Security is not projected to collect enough taxes in the coming years to pay out future benefits at the present rate. You may have heard in the media that “Social Security is going bankrupt.”5 It isn’t, but it needs increased sources of revenue. The problems that Social Security faces in the relatively near future have led many to “lose faith” in the program. Poll results suggest that many young people doubt they will ever receive any money back from their payments into the system.6
Although it has some structural problems, Social Security has many aspects that help it promote the cause of economic justice. First, most workers are required to participate in the system and pay taxes for Social Security. The universality of the program promotes fairer outcomes; everyone who has paid into the system at a certain minimum level is entitled to future benefits. Second, Social Security also allows people choices in when they take benefits, so it is not a “one-size-fits-all” type of program. Senior citizens can begin taking benefits when they are 62 if they so desire or wait all the way up to their seventieth birthday, earning greater yearly benefits for each year that they wait. Third, as noted above, benefits are adjusted yearly for inflation, so the purchasing power of recipients is maintained. Fourth, those who pay more into the system receive greater benefits; benefits, however, are capped at a certain level.
Lastly, although this part is not necessarily widely known, there is a degree of progressivity in the design of the program. Those who earn ten times more than average do not receive ten times more in Social Security benefits. In a complicated formula (using “bend points”), the “rate of return” on taxes paid into the system by lower-income individuals is greater than the rate of return on the higher amounts of taxes paid by wealthier individuals. Yes, it is complicated.7 Wealthier individuals also generally pay higher federal tax rates on the benefits they receive than poorer individuals. In practice, some of the progressivity can be diminished based on either the choices of individuals (taking Social Security early) or by differentials in life spans between those with higher and lower incomes. Richer people generally live longer on average and therefore may receive more years of payments.8 Economists have spilled a lot of ink discussing how progressive the system is in practice, but the design of Social Security itself is progressive.
How does Social Security survive and continue to serve the common good? The system needs enhanced sources of revenue. Generally, I’m not too fond of higher taxes, but in this case, they will be absolutely necessary for the system to be maintained. The percentage that individuals are taxed for Social Security (currently 6.2 percent out of earnings) will have to rise, and it should start to rise soon. The system could also collect additional revenue and be made more progressive by removing the cap on earnings that are taxed for Social Security. That cap is currently at 160,200 dollars,9 and can likely be moved upwards by a modest amount each year without much objection.
Some policymakers have suggested that Social Security benefits should be “means-tested” by withdrawing benefits received by higher-income individuals. I believe this would be a substantial mistake. Although arguments like “Bill Gates and Elon Musk don’t need Social Security” seem to make sense at face value, turning Social Security into a “welfare” program where only lower-income individuals receive benefits will change the entire nature of the program. The system’s current design has allowed it to secure popular support and consistent funding. Programs funded by richer individuals that primarily benefit poorer individuals are less popular and are likely to be the target of future cuts. In addition, if we would ever desire to increase the level of benefits for the poor, keeping Social Security as a universal program is a much better strategy.
From time to time, there have also been proposals to privatize Social Security. Given the spotty record of stewardship of public funds in many government programs, I am sometimes a fan of moving things to the private sector where possible, but in this case, I demur. While some of the direct “financial” logic for privatization can perhaps make sense, privatization would take away the “common good” aspect of the program.
The 2024 election is just over a year away, and if the past is any guide, there will be some hot rhetoric concerning Social Security. Despite what some people might say, there are no serious proposals that would end up “taking away your Social Security.” It is immoral to try to scare senior citizens by suggesting that this is possible. Christians need to be truth tellers concerning Social Security. The program is not going away, but it needs to be revised substantially for it to survive in its current form. Social Security has long been known as the “third rail” of politics. For those who don’t ride the subway too often, the third rail provides the electricity for the train to move. If you touch it, you die. In the same way, politicians often fear for their political careers if they attempt to reform Social Security. However, Social Security is not an issue to be politicized. We must not let the growing skepticism about the program get in the way of the substantial benefits it can have in the future. For the common good, we need bipartisan cooperation on this issue so that Social Security can itself be “secured” through the rest of the century. Christians need to take the lead to tone down the rhetoric and encourage politicians to tackle this difficult issue.
- See for example, https://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/heres-how-much-money-you-could-lose-if-social-security-goes-bankrupt.
- Substantial information is provided about the Social Security program at ssa.gov.