Social Security is now just a year away from this scary milestone


2020 is here, and many people are excited about starting a new decade. Yet for those who watch Social Security’s financial condition, New Year’s Day just means we’re a year closer to the challenges facing the key government program.

This year is likely to be the last one that Social Security manages to keep its spending under a key psychological level. Starting in 2021, the amount of money that the Social Security Administration spends on benefits for retirees and survivors of retired workers will exceed $1 trillion for the first time – and that’s just the beginning of an upward surge that will pose problems for the program’s finances sometime during the 2030s.

Breaking down the numbers

This might not be the first time you’ve heard about Social Security flirting with the $1 trillion mark. In 2019, the total expenditures from the entire Social Security program – which include not only retirement and survivor benefits but also the payments it makes to disabled workers and their families – went over $1 trillion for the first time in the program’s 83 years.

Yet even though millions of people rely on disability benefits, the retirement side of Social Security makes up by far the majority of total spending from the program, and so it’s in position to follow suit over the $1 trillion mark in quick succession. In 2019, about 90% of scheduled benefits were tied to retirement, compared with just 10% in disability benefits. Few see that proportion changing markedly anytime in the near future.

Moreover, the amount that the government spends on retiree benefits will only rise over time. By 2028, Social Security retirement and survivor benefits will likely cost more than $1.5 trillion, and with payroll tax revenue failing to keep up with that surge, the program will be drawing down nearly $200 billion per year from its reserves to pay scheduled benefits at that point.

A tug of war is coming

There’s no agreement in Washington about how to solve the problems that Social Security faces. Some believe that reining in the rate of growth of future benefits is the best way to control spending. And measures like tying future increases in benefits related to costs of living to indexes that grow more slowly than the current inflation metrics could help preserve the program’s financial condition longer…Read more>>