(This post was written for inclusion in the upcoming Facing Up blog carnival on Social Security.)
What effect will aging Baby Boomers have on the Social Security retirement and disability programs? Huge might be an understatement. The Baby Boom generation is defined as those roughly 80 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. The first of the Baby Boomers began to turn 62 in January of 2008. That, of course, is the early retirement age for Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration predicts that about a million Baby Boomers will take early retirement, even though their monthly checks will be 25 percent lower than if they waited until the normal retirement age of 66.
As “Boomers” begin to retire, the effect on the Social Security system will be twofold – first, there will be more retirees receiving benefits. Second, there will be fewer workers paying into the system to support those retirees. Boomers didn’t have as many children per family as our preceding generation did. We had about two children per family, compared with three children per family in our parents’ generation. So we didn’t produce as many new workers to support the old workers now retiring.
In fact, experts say that we have gone from about 16 workers paying into Social Security for every person drawing benefits in 1950, to a little more than three to one today. In a few more years we’ll be down to about two to one. This is not guesswork. We absolutely know how many new adult workers we will have 20 years from now, because they have already been born. We’re not going to have a sudden, unexpected increase in the number of workers. (Unless we have a major change in our immigration laws.)
Economic predictions are all over the map on this, but one guesstimate is that about the year 2017 the Social Security system will start to see that incoming payroll taxes aren’t enough to match outgoing retirement and disability benefits. The timing is less important than the inevitability of the event. Every year from 2008 until 2025 will see another wave of Boomers retiring. Somewhere during that time span, the benefits will outgrow the income.
That doesn’t mean the system will collapse at that time, because there’s enough money in the Social Security Trust Fund to carry us for another 20-25 years beyond the point at which benefits begin to outweigh income. Or at least there is supposed to be money in the Social Security Trust Fund. Unfortunately, the politicians have been raiding that fund for years, and it now consists primarily of IOUs from the federal government.
When the Trust Fund runs out of money, that’s when the crunch will come. Politicians will have to make some difficult decisions – increase taxes, decrease benefits, or both. We all know that politicians are loath to make hard choices, but it’s going to have to be done. And really, it won’t take all that much of a change to get the Social Security system back in balance.
But an even bigger problem will be the Medicare and Medicaid crisis looming ahead of us. These programs face not only the demographic changes the aging Baby Boomers present, but also the runaway inflationary costs of medical and pharmaceutical care. The Medicare shortfall could be roughly five times as large as the Social Security shortfall. That should well and truly frighten you.
Some estimates are that by the year 2040, Social Security and Medicare will consume as much as 60 percent of income taxes collected. The remaining 40 percent of tax revenue would have to finance all the rest of the federal government.
My own, uneducated, guess is that Congress will not significantly reduce benefits for people already receiving Social Security retirement benefits, but will probably have to make major changes to Medicare and thereby reduce medical benefits. I suspect the government will also tighten rules even more on disability benefits, and try to save money by denying obviously qualified Social Security disability applicants.
The future is not hopeless for Social Security and Medicare but it’s certainly not rosy. Big changes are coming, and the sooner they come, the better off we’ll be. The question is whether Congress and the Administration will have the political willpower to deal with the tidal wave on the horizon or whether they will hide their heads in the sand, as usual.