From the June 2014 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Social Security: Then, Now and the Future

To understand Social Security's future, you have to know about its past. A Social Security primer, with some surprising facts about who benefits the most and who the least

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A look at the origins of Social Security, trends in withholding tax increases and what to expect in the future. A look at the origins of Social Security, trends in withholding tax increases and what to expect in the future.

From the earliest days of civilization, we have had the poor, the disabled and the unemployed. The belief that society should provide assistance to the needy is an early societal concept that is both compassionate and prudent. In this article, we’ll focus on one area of the U.S. social welfare system: Social Security. We’ll discuss its origins, look at how the withholding tax for employees and employers has increased over the years and expose the single greatest threat to its future.

In the early days of our nation, the colonists imported British Poor Laws to assist those who were in need due to poor health or age, or those who were able bodied but unemployed. The government provided assistance to the former group, while the latter group was required to work on various public projects.

From 1800 to 1929, Americans lived through 23 recessions and four depressions, or one every 4.8 years. After several years of hardship during the Great Depression, more and more people began to look to the government for assistance. The stage was thus set for the most expansive social program in America's history.

Social Security

When populist Louisiana Governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930, he proposed a program called “Share the Wealth,” under which the federal government would confiscate the wealth of the nation's rich to guarantee an annual income of $5,000 to every family in America ($5,000 in 1930 dollars equates to $69,000 today). His program would have included an old-age pension for everyone over 60.

Instead, after his election in 1932, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a massive government expansion focused on the “Three R's”: relief for the poor, recovery of the economy and reform of the financial system to prevent future depressions.

Opponents argued that it would cause a loss of jobs while proponents contended that a Social Security system for older citizens would encourage workers to retire, thus creating jobs. There were loud cries of “socialism,” and many in Congress felt the bill was rushed. There were also several heated debates concerning the constitutionality of the program. When it reached the Supreme Court, much of FDR's New Deal was struck down.

Rather than surrender, FDR responded by gaining new presidential authority from Congress, including the power to appoint new federal judges in districts where the sitting justices were age 70 or older and refused to retire. He was successful and appointed 44 lower court judges and six new justices to the Supreme Court, thus tipping the political legal scales in his favor. The matter was then returned to the Supreme Court where much of his New Deal was upheld, including Social Security. FDR finally signed the Social Security Act into law on Aug. 14, 1935.

However, the dissenters didn't disappear. In fact, the constitutionality issue wasn't resolved until 1937 when it was upheld by two Supreme Court decisions on the same day: Steward Machine Company v. Davis and Helvering v. Davis.

Because Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to collect taxes specifically for the “general welfare of the United States,” the Social Security Act was deemed constitutional. This is strikingly similar to the court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act (the ACA or Obamacare) when it held that the federal government has the power to mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance. This was upheld by the current Supreme Court on the grounds that the fine imposed on those who fail to comply with Obamacare is considered a tax. In 1937, eligible workers began contributing to Social Security.

Social Security's Withholding History

Social Security wasn't without its problems in terms of the benefits to society. In the beginning of the program, up to half the labor force was excluded, including agricultural workers, government employees, many teachers, nurses, hospital employees and others. Moreover, two-thirds to as much as 80% of African-Americans were excluded. The first monthly benefit check was received by Ida May Fuller on Jan. 31, 1940, in the amount of $22.54 (approximately $375 today).

During the first 12 years of the program, a 1% tax was withheld from the wages of eligible workers, which was matched by their employers. However, beginning in 1950, the rate of tax withholdings began to rise until it peaked at 6.2% in 1990 (see chart on the right). In 1965, Medicare was added to the Social Security Act, and one year later, employees and employers were required to contribute an additional 0.35%. The following chart illustrates the percentage of tax withheld from eligible workers from inception to the present day. It should be noted that this does not include the withholding tax for Medicare.

Mortality History

Perhaps the greatest threat to the viability of Social Security is the increase in Americans’ longevity. For example, in 1940, the year that first Social Security monthly benefit check was written, a 65-year-old male had a life expectancy of 12.7 years (65 + 12.7 = 77.7). A female of the same age could expect to live until 79.7, an additional 14.7 years. According to a 2009 periodic life table for the Social Security population, the life expectancy of a 65-year-old male has risen to 17.5 years, 4.8 years longer than in 1940. The life expectancy of a female at age 65 is now 20.2 years, an increase of 5.5 years. The payout period of Social Security is expanding, a trend that is expected to continue.

Most understand that life expectancies are influenced by gender and race. However, were you aware that affluence impacts longevity? According to a research paper published in 2007 by the Social Security Administration's Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, there is a difference in both the level and the rate of improvement in mortality by socioeconomic status. In other words, not only do upper-income earners enjoy a longer life expectancy, they have also experienced a greater improvement in longevity.

Why? There are a number of longitudinal studies on the correlation between wealth and longevity, such as the Grant Study, which was funded by dime store magnate W.T. Grant and conducted by Harvard University in 1939. In addition to having better access to health care, the affluent tend to be more forward-looking and goal-oriented. Additional research has shown that individuals who make decisions with an eye toward the future tend to make better choices, resulting in a healthier lifestyle.

Social Security Taxation of Benefits

Prior to 1984, Social Security benefits were exempt from federal income tax. However, beginning in 1984, as much as 50% of one's Social Security benefit became subject to tax. In 1993, a new 85% level was added. Today, there are three categories of Social Security taxation:

  1. No portion of an individual's benefit is taxed.

  2. Fifty percent of one's benefit is taxed.

  3. Eighty-five percent is subject to federal income tax.

This determination rests upon two issues: the recipient's tax filing status and modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), also known as provisional income. The formula for MAGI is 50% of Social Security plus all other income. Here's an example.

Assume a single filer with the following annual income: $20,000 from Social Security, $3,000 in tax-free interest, $5,000 in dividend income, a pension of $10,000 and $12,000 from a part-time job.

In this case, MAGI is $40,000 (50% of Social Security income = $10,000 + 3,000 + 5,000 + 10,000 + 12,000).

The next step is to compare this to the applicable threshold found in the following table. Because $40,000 exceeds the upper threshold for a single taxpayer ($34,000), up to 85% of his Social Security benefit may be subject to income tax. If his MAGI were between $25,000 and $33,999, only 50% of his benefit would be subject to tax. Finally, if his MAGI were under $25,000, none of his Social Security would be taxed.

Social Security and Earned Income

Another sensitive issue is working while receiving a Social Security benefit. If you are younger than your full retirement age (FRA) and working, your Social Security benefit may be reduced. If you are under your FRA for the entire year, your benefit will be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn above $15,120 (the 2013 limit). In the year you reach your FRA, your benefit will be reduced $1 for every $3 you earn over a different limit ($40,800 in 2013), but only up to the month you attain your FRA. Once you reach your FRA there is no reduction.

Case Study: Introduction

Let's assume we have four males born in 1948 who worked and paid into Social Security from age 18 through age 64 (1966 to 2012), at which point they retired and began receiving a Social Security pension. The first worker earned the prevailing minimum wage in effect each year of his career. The second earned an income equivalent to the U.S. median income each year. The third had annual earnings equal to the Social Security maximum wage base. The fourth worker earned an income that was 50% greater than the maximum wage base. (The Social Security pension figures were derived from the Quick Calculator found on the Social Security Administration's website, and all figures are in current dollars.)

Income Replacement Percentage

Will Social Security completely fulfill a retiree's income need? The answer depends on the recipient's desired standard of living. The chart below illustrates how the income replacement percentage falls as the amount of pre-retirement income rises.

In the case of the minimum wage earner, his Social Security benefit of $11,088 is 76.5% of his pre-retirement income. Conversely, the worker who earned the equivalent of the Social Security annual wage base maximum would receive a benefit of $31,044, which is 28.2% of his pre-retirement income. Because there is a maximum on Social Security's contributions and benefits, the top two wage earners would receive the same benefit. Hence, as a worker's income rises beyond the wage base maximum, his income replacement percentage would fall accordingly. Therefore, the higher a person's income, the more important it is to have additional sources of retirement income.

Social Security or Privatization?

Instead of paying into Social Security, what if the workers in our case study could have opted for a privatized program? Assuming the same level of contributions (employee and employer), what average rate of return would’ve been required to provide the same benefit? The results are shown in the table below.

NOTE: The high-income earner is absent because his results are the same as the Social Security wage base max worker. Also, the columns labeled “Required Return” utilize different mortality tables. The first uses the same mortality for all workers (17.5 years). The last incorporates a longer mortality for the Social Security wage base max (21.5 years) versus 16.1 years for the lower income workers.

Since upper-income earners receive larger pensions over a longer period, one might naturally conclude that they place a greater strain on Social Security than lower income earners and that Congress may attempt to impose a higher Social Security withholding percentage for upper income earners, such as was done with the 0.9% additional Medicare tax imposed in 2013 for higher income taxpayers. However, as shown above, the return needed for the lower income worker is higher than that needed for the upper income worker.

Social Security will continue to be a key proficiency subject for advisors and will continue to be a key discussion item for the different branches of the federal government to address. I’ve only touched the surface of the important issues that will remain part of advisors’ retirement income planning equation. My recommendation is to keep a close eye on Congress, especially in the area of taxation, as I fully expect they will be forced to address the viability of the Social Security system in the near term.

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