clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

FEARS OVER SOCIAL SECURITY: OVERBLOWN OR LEGITIMATE?

In a speech before the National Press Club last week, Social Security Commissioner Gwendolyn King dismissed media reports about Social Security trust fund problems as "scare stories" and said the system is in superb shape with a $336 billion surplus. Similar explanations about the great condition of the trust fund are being made through radio ads.

Unfortunately, such cheerleading doesn't change one basic fact - the "surplus" exists only on paper.While it is true that the Social Security system takes in more money each year than it needs, Congress has borrowed all of the surplus and spent it on other things, leaving behind interest-bearing IOUs.

The difference in viewing the condition of the Social Security trust fund lies in the perception of those IOUs - whether they represent real money or just a paper promise.

King says the IOUs are the same as real money, backed by the federal government, and it is a "falsehood" to say the government has raided the trust funds and cleaned them out. Yet the undisputed fact of the matter is that the actual cash is gone.

King admits as much, but says Social Security revenue is high enough that there won't be any need to touch the trust fund money for 25 years, thus giving the federal government "ample time" to pay back what it has borrowed - and continues to borrow.

What a typical government response: Spend the billions now and worry later - much later, if possible - about how to pay it back. If history is any guide, returning the funds won't even be pondered until Social Security faces a crisis.

Consider the following:

- The federal government borrows all the money from the Social Security trust fund and yet still runs up bigger and bigger budget deficits every year. The budget shortfall this fiscal year is estimated at $400 billion.

- The money borrowed from the Social Security trust fund is figured as "income" and is not counted as part of the deficit.

- Interest on the national debt already costs more than $200 billion a year, the third largest expense in the federal budget.

- Efforts last year to cut Social Security taxes in light of the huge surpluses were rejected by Congress, which said it absolutely had to have the money being borrowed from the trust fund.

All this leads to some fundamental questions.

If Congress "must" borrow the Social Security surplus, what happens when the annual surplus dwindles away, as will happen one day? And what happens on top of that when Social Security needs to start cashing in the IOUs?

Where's the government - which can't pay its current bills, even using the Social Security surplus - going to get the money to start repaying what might be $1 trillion or more?

Those concerns amount to a lot more than just "scare stories."