The Trust Fund Myth
When a new bond is issued, it is printed on a laser printer located at the Bureau of the Public Debt's Martinsburg, WV office. The bond is then carried across the room and put in a fireproof filing cabinet. That filing cabinet is the Social Security trust fund.
People tend to think of their Social Security benefits as an actual account, in their name, which contains cash or investments. In reality, the Social Security trust fund contains nothing more than IOUs that have no value beyond a promise to impose higher taxes on future workers. The annual surpluses that many thought were being used to build up a reserve for Baby Boomers have been spent on other government programs or to reduce government debt.
Social Security is not like a savings account in which payroll taxes are saved for retirement. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, meaning that the taxes paid by today's workers are immediately sent out to pay the benefits of today's retirees.
The problem with this system is that it only functions when there are a lot of workers paying payroll taxes and just a few retired people getting benefits. This is no longer the case. Our senior population is growing much faster than our working population and this means there are fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees.
No Cash Is Being Saved
Today Social Security is collecting more money than it needs to pay benefits, but by 2018 it will begin running a deficit—collecting less in taxes than it pays in benefits. Many shrug off this looming shortfall thinking that the Social Security "trust fund" will help pay benefits and put off the need for tax increases or benefit cuts. This is not the case.
The government does not save our Social Security taxes for future retirees. Congress borrows this extra money and uses it to make up for deficits elsewhere in the budget. Thus the Social Security trust fund contains nothing but IOUs the government has written to itself. And when Uncle Sam goes to repay those IOUs, you know who pays the bill: we do. That means that in order to repay those IOUs, the government will have to either raise taxes or cut programs.
Social Security is already the biggest tax that most workers pay, but to keep the system afloat payroll taxes will have to rise even higher—to 20 percent of each worker's wages.
How the Social Security Trust Funds Differ from Real Trust Funds
The Social Security trust fund consists totally of special issue Treasury bonds and certificates of indebtedness. They are special in that these bonds can only be issued to and redeemed by the Social Security trust funds. These bonds cannot be sold in the open market.
The Social Security trust fund bonds pay the same interest as regular Treasury bonds issued on the same day and in the same maturity. When the bonds mature, they are rolled over into new bonds that include both the original issue amount and any interest due. The new bonds pay whatever interest as regular Treasury bonds of the same maturity issued on that date.
These bonds are really nothing more than IOUs from one branch of government to another. They are not a real financial asset.
Until relatively recently, these bonds only existed as entries in a record book. However, now when a new bond is issued, it is printed on a laser printer located at the Bureau of the Public Debt's Martinsburg, WV office. The bond is then carried across the room and put in a fireproof filing cabinet. That filing cabinet is the Social Security trust fund.
At some point in the future, Social Security will need to spend more than it receives in payroll taxes. At that point, it will begin to cash in the bonds in the trust fund. Where will the money come from?
According to the OMB, there are only four sources that money can be drawn from. Congress could repay the money by raising other taxes. It could also authorize the Treasury to just borrow the needed funds. Another alternative would be for Congress to reduce other federal programs and to use the money that was to have been spent for them to redeem Social Security bonds. Finally, Congress could reduce Social Security benefits.