The Social Security Administration, best known for providing retirement benefits to all Americans, is a perpetual rhetorical target for fiscal conservatives seeking to curb government spending. However, the Social Security payment program is among the most popular programs managed by the federal government. In recent polling, four out of five Americans were in favor of expanding the payments or keeping them at their current levels. They represent a major chunk of income for elderly Americans, and are often their only reliable source of income once they retire.
However, the Social Security payout scheme has its limitations. The payments are based on a person’s income during the most productive thirty-five years of their life—but not all Americans actually work for thirty-five years, and those who do not experience lower payouts. In the Guardian, a Florida woman, aged seventy-four, told reporters that because she was forbidden from working by her abusive husband for many years, and spent time caring for her father instead of working, her monthly Social Security payout was only $709 per month. While the average payout is $1,500 per month, many payments are considerably lower. By comparison, the federal poverty line is set at roughly $1,000 per month, and varies slightly by state.
In theory, social security is supposed to only account for a portion of a senior’s living funds, and Americans are encouraged to put money in retirement funds, such as Roth IRAs and 401(k)s, while they are working. However, some people have not done this; according to a 2020 Vanguard report, one-third of Americans had saved less than $10,000 for retirement.
Advocates for increases to Social Security benefits note that the payout levels have not been increased since 1972, and generally are not adjusted according to one’s cost of living, although they are adjusted for inflation. In 1972, many employers in the United States also provided pensions to their employers—a practice that is now mostly extinct in the private sector, though maintained in some public-sector jobs. The benefits are also federally taxed.
A separate challenge is that Social Security, though fully funded for the next decade, is paid for by a trust fund that is being depleted by payouts faster than it is being filled by tax revenue. Fixing this problem is a significant political challenge; it requires either modest cuts to future benefits, highly unpopular with senior advocacy groups such as AARP, or modest increases to Social Security taxes, highly unpopular with fiscal conservatives. At current expense levels, the trust fund is slated to continue fully paying out until around 2035, when it will be forced to cut benefits if Congress does not act.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.