1957-59 Advisory Council


1957-59 Advisory Council
Misunderstandings of Social Security Financing

his paper, prepared by the staff of the Advisory Council, addresses many of the perennial misconceptions surrounding the Social Security Trust Funds. Many of the same mistaken ideas regarding the Trust Funds that the Council was concerned to correct in 1958 are still heard in some quarters even today.



(Prepared for Advisory Council on Social Security Financing)



Numerous newspaper articles and editorials recently have carried the statement that the old-age and survivors insurance trust fund has a shortage of $300 billion. Similar criticisms, with different estimates of the unfunded liability of the program, have appeared during the past few years.

Clarence E. Manion, formerly dean of the law school at Notre Dame University, in a radio speech in 1954 (9) stated that "under the 1954 amendments, the accrued liability of this huge coverage at the minimum estimate, is $250 billion"; and in a broadcast in 1956 (10) he quoted a listener who had sent him an estimate that the trust fund was then "$280 billion in the red."

William J. Matteson of the American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in a book (11) wrote that "The fund thus far accumulated is only a small fraction of the actuarially computed reserve that would be necessary if the scheme were operating on a sound basis."

Donald F. Campbell, Jr., a consulting actuary, in a speech in 1956 (2) stated that "$259 billion in unfunded accrued liability ... should be added to the Federal debt in evaluating the overall national financial obligation in the opinion of many economists." Dillerd Stokes in a book in 1956 (18) declared that "the reserve fund, even if it were real, is pledged 10 times over." Both Mr. Campbell and Mr. Stokes referred to an estimate by the Social Security Administration (6) that the total accrued benefit liability of the program at the end of 1954 was $280 billion of which $21 billion was funded.

Albert C.Adams, then vice-president of the National Association of Life Underwriters, in a speech in 1957 (1) stated that "The social security trust fund has a shortage of $300 billion and it is increasing year after year." He explained that the trust fund, which at that time totaled $23 billion, had "accumulated liabilities" of $323 billion.


A compulsory social insurance program does not require a reserve fund with assets at any given time equal to the present value of future benefits payable to current beneficiaries and active members less the present value of future contributions payable by them. Private life insurance companies are legally required to have such reserves because they must be prepared to execute insurance contracts by paying off benefit liabilities or cash surrender values even if the company should cease writing any new business. A compulsory government program can be properly financed on the assumption that it will not discontinue operations in the future and that it will continue to receive contribution income. The Federal old-age and survivors insurance program is in approximate actuarial balance when evaluated in terms appropriate to such a program: over the long-range operation of this program, the scheduled contribution rates, according to actuarial estimates, will, along with interest receipts, produce roughly sufficient income to meet the benefits provided and the administrative expenses.



The large volume of claims received from newly insured workers early in 1957 led to inquiries from the public as to whether more beneficiaries were being added to the rolls than had been expected. When data were released showing that benefit amounts were exceeding estimates, questions were raised as to the effect of the resulting larger-than-expected benefit expenditures on the financial status of the program. Statements appeared in the public press that the fund in 1957 was heading for its first deficit, with prospects that it would go deeper "into the red" during 1958 and 1959.

Articles commenting on this development in the financial position of the trust fund appeared in Barron's (13), Time magazine (16), The Wall Street Journal (14), Business Week (17), United States News and World Report (20) , and other periodicals. Many daily news papers printed news articles, editorials, or comments by columnists on this subject. Radio and television commentators also used the item. Some of the comments combined the current analysis with repetition of long-circulated criticisms of the trust fund. Other comments used the current financial condition of the fund as a basis for warnings against any additional liberalization of the program.

Public reaction was widespread. Congressmen and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare received many inquiries about these reports. The inquiries expressed the concern of beneficiaries and contributors about the financial condition of the trust fund and especially about the possibility that payment of future benefits might be endangered.


The financial provisions of the old-age and survivors insurance program were not designed to provide trust fund income equal to or in excess of trust fund disbursements in every year. Instead, they were designed to provide receipts exceeding disbursements in most years during the next several decades and thereafter in a rough balance between receipts and disbursements.

Total receipts of the old-age and survivors insurance trust fund exceeded total disbursements from that fund in every calendar year before 1957. In 1957, however, total expenditures exceeded receipts by about $125 million. Current estimates indicate that in calendar year 1958 and 1959 the fund's disbursements can also be expected to exceed total trust fund income.

This situation, however, will be temporary. Under the schedule provided in the Act contribution rates will increase every 5 years until 1975; as a result, the income of the trust fund is expected on the whole to rise more rapidly than disbursements. Consequently, the assets of the trust fund are expected to increase in most years for the next several decades. Disbursements of the fund nevertheless may exceed receipts in years immediately before scheduled contribution rate increases and possibly in some years of business recession.

The old-age and survivors insurance trust fund serves a two-fold function. Through its interest earnings, the fund is a source of income supplementing contribution receipts, thereby keeping down the level of contributions required to finance the program. In addition, the assets of the fund are available, when needed, to supplement current receipts in periods when disbursements temporarily rise above trust fund income. In this way, it serves as a contingency reserve. Since the fund is being accumulated partly for use in such contingencies, there is nothing alarming, or indicative of financial weakness, about temporary reductions in the size of the fund.



One of the oldest and most persistent criticisms of the old-age and survivors insurance trust fund is that its investments in Federal securities involve double taxation for social security, once in the payment of social security contributions and a second time in the payment of taxes to pay interest on and to redeem the securities held by the trust find.

In 1939, Mr. John T. Flynn in an article (4) referred to taxation for interest on the reserve fund as supplemental taxes for social security and he wrote "By the President's plan two taxes must be collected--employer-employee taxes and general taxes to pay interest." In another article in 1947 (5) Mr. Flynn wrote: "The Government will again have to collect taxes from workers and employers in order to pay the interest on the bonds in the Old Age Reserve Fund."

Meanwhile, newspaper columnists and editorial writers had given wide circulation to the criticism of "double taxation," and comments of this type have continued up to the present time.

In a report (19) the Senate Committee on Finance in 1943 characterized appropriations to pay interest on a reserve fund as identical with "a direct appropriation to the support of the old-age and survivors insurance system" and referred to what it characterized as "needless accumulation" of Government reserves as the result of taxation. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, in a speech on the floor of the Senate in 1944 (22) repeated substantially the same view as had appeared in the report.

In 1944, Harley L. Lutz in a pamphlet (7) characterized the taxation which furnished the money invested in bonds as "vain" and "pure illusion." In a book published in 1945 (8) he said that the Federal Government "is merely creating a pledge that Federal taxes will be levied in future to carry and redeem these bonds."

In 1950, Lewis Mariam and Karl Schlotterbeck in their book (12) counted the cost of interest on securities held by the trust fund as part of the total cost of the old-age and survivors insurance program. They also stated that it is immaterial whether future citizens pay one social security tax or "a social security tax plus taxes necessary to pay interest and principal on the governmental debts held in the actuarial reserve. The only possible difference between the future taxes would be in their incidence."

Dillard Stokes in his book (18) in 1956 counted payroll taxation as the first form of taxation for social security, general taxation to pay interest on securities held by the trust fund as a second form, and general taxation to redeem bonds held by the fund as a third form--thus developing a charge of triple taxation rather than double taxation.


Contributions are levied in the form of taxes to finance the old-age and survivors insurance and disability insurance programs, and these contributions are appropriated to the social security trust funds.

To cover expenditures for purposes duly authorized by Congress, such as armaments and highway construction, the Federal Government from time to time instead of raising additional taxes borrows money, some of it from the trust funds. When taxes are levied to repay these Federal borrowings from the trust funds and other investors, these taxes will be levied to meet the cost of the armaments, highway construction, and the other objects for which the money was borrowed. To hold otherwise would mean that taxes will never have to be levied to pay the full cost of the materials and services that the Government purchased with borrowed money.

People are taxed for social security when they pay their contributions under the program. Taxes paid to redeem the Federal securities held by the trust funds are paid for the purposes for.which the money was borrowed from the trust funds, and not for social security.

Similarly, the interest the Government pays on the Federal securities held by the trust funds are payments made for purposes other than social security. Congress has recognized that it would be inequitable to contributors under the social security programs if the Treasury borrowed money from the trust funds without paying interest on these borrowings just as it would have to do if the money was borrowed from others. The taxes raised to pay this interest are levied for the purposes for which the money was borrowed and not for social security.

The Government must pay interest on all the public debt whether or not part of it is held by the trust funds. Payment of interest to the trust funds therefore does not increase the cost of servicing the debt. On the other hand, the interest received by the trust funds on their investments supplements their receipts from contributions and results eventually in lower contributions for social security than would be necessary if no interest were received by the funds. In this way, the payment of interest on securities held by the trust funds has the effect of decreasing, rather than increasing, the taxes people eventually must pay for social security.



Generally, the same critics who have made the criticism of double taxation also have labeled trust fund investments as IOU's issued by the Government to itself.

This criticism appears in John T. Flynn's 1939 magazine article (4) and in Mr. Manion's radio addresses (9 and 10) Newspaper columnists and editorial writers have repeated it intermittently. Letters to members of Congress and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare also refer to it.

The essential part of this criticism is the idea that securities are issued by the Government to itself. Since the old-age and survivors insurance trust fund is a Federal fund created by Federal statute, and since the promises to repay money borrowed from that fund are made by the United States Government, the obligations are described as IOU's issued by the Government to itself.

Issuance of Federal obligations to the trust fund is held to be fictitious on the ground that only investments in obligations issued by borrowers other than the Federal Government could be serviced without calling on the general taxing powers of the Federal . In this way, the criticism of double taxation is linked with the criticism that trust fund investments were IOU's issued by the Federal Government to itself.


All promises to pay, including all bonds or notes issued by the Federal Government, may be called IOU's. As evidence of debt, the Federal securities issued to the trust funds do not differ in any material respect from Federal obligations held by private investors. Obligations of the United States Government are universally recognized to be the safest possible investment. The central point to the criticism, therefore, is whether the securities held by the trust funds are obligations issued by the Government to itself.

There can be no question that the Federal old-age and survivors insurance and disability insurance trust funds and the Board of Trustees of those funds were created by and are subject to laws enacted by the Congress of the United States. To that extent, they are a part of the United States Government. These funds, however, are entities separate from and independent of the rest of the Federal Government. The income and disbursements of the funds are not included in the administrative budget of the Government. Instead, the President reports their operations separately in his Budget Message to Congress and the Board of Trustees is required to submit to Congress annually a report on the operations and status of the funds. The debt obligations held by the trust funds are shown in Treasury reports as part of the Federal debt, and interest payments on these obligations are regularly made by the Treasury to the trust funds. They are redeemed in cash by the Treasury whenever necessary for disbursements by these funds.

The old-age and survivors insurance and disability insurance trust funds are only two among several Federal trust funds that invest in obligations of the United States. All of them are entities independent of the United States Treasury which issues the Federal obligations they hold. The Treasury is as much obligated to pay interest on and redeem these securities as it is to pay interest on and redeem the Federal securities held by other investors.



An outstanding example of this view is the statement by John T. Flynn in 1947 (5) that the Federal old-age and survivors insurance program "is a plan to add a billion or two every year to the national debt which we are supposed to reduce." From time to time newspaper writers and letters received by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare have expressed the belief that trust fund investments cause increases in the national debt. In some comments, this idea has been linked with a belief that the availability of borrowable money due to trust fund accumulation is a temptation to Federal extravagance.


The national debt is increased only when for a given fiscal year Congress has approved expenditures that exceed tax revenues. The excess expenditures, of course, must be met by borrowing through the sale of additional Federal obligations. These obligations add to the national debt.

The purchase of Federal obligations by the trust funds does not increase the total Federal debt. If there were no trust funds, the Treasury would still borrow just as much, all of it from other investors. When the Treasury has no deficit to meet, Treasury borrowing from the trust funds can result only in the redemption of an equal amount of outstanding Federal obligations. In this way trust fund purchases of Federal obligations from the Treasury when there is no budget deficit result only in a transfer of Federal debt obligations to the trust funds from other investors; the total amount of the public debt remains unchanged.

There is no indication that the availability of trust fund money for borrowing by the Treasury ever has influenced Congress to vote expenditures not covered by general tax revenues which it would not have otherwise voted. The United States Treasury can always borrow money on the open market; the trust fund money does not increase the amount it is able to borrow. Whether borrowed on the open market or from the trust funds, money borrowed to meet a deficit increases the national debt and adds to the costs of servicing that debt.



This misunderstanding is based on the fact that when the old-age and survivors insurance and disability insurance trust funds invest in Federal securities, the Treasury uses the money thus borrowed to help pay the expenses of the Federal Government. The critics usually do not mention borrowing or investment; they charge that program contributions have been wrongly used to pay the expenses of the Government. Some of these critics, chiefly newspaper writers, recognize that the borrowing has been authorized by law, but they nevertheless hold that the transactions are in effect "legalized embezzlement."

This criticism was made in the discussion of fund accumulation which preceded the 1939 amendments to the Social Security Act. In 1939, John T. Flynn in an article (4) charged that substantial amounts of the program's contribution income would never be spent for benefits at all, "but for every sort of Government expense including, perhaps, building battleships." He described program contributions as a disguised tax levied on the lowest income groups under the pretense of old-age pension premiums. In 1947, also in an article (5), Mr. Flynn declared that it is dishonest to collect taxes under one guise and spend them for another purpose.

Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, in a speech in 1942 (21) objected to the use of contribution income for investments to finance the war, warning that "To use social security reserves for any collateral purpose other than social security benefits is to weaken the Social Security System at a vital spot."

Harley L. Lutz in 1944 (7) charged that the old-age and survivors insurance program involves a tax levy used in part for general purposes and in part for bona fide social security payments. He wrote that "The taxes now being collected are principally devoted to general purposes and only in minor degree to genuine social security purposes"; and also that "Whether workers and employers should be required to pay so heavily toward general Federal purposes under the guise of providing for social security benefits ... is a subject which should be frankly faced."

Using a similar tone, Meriam and Schlotterbeck in 1950 (12) pointed out that the program would provide substantial revenues for the general support of Government for a considerable number of years and commented that "Such revenues are sometimes called 'forced contributions' from special groups for the benefit of the budget as a whole." They further commented that "The taxpayers of today do not appreciate that most of the proceeds of the payroll tax ... a regressive tax, are actually being used to finance current operations."

Senator Eugene D. Millikin during the hearings of the Senate Committee on Finance on the 1950 amendments to the Social Security Act (15) repeatedly objected to "using the contributory insurance system as a means of covering the general revenue expenditures of the country."

This charge that contribution income not needed for current program expenditures has been wrongly spent for operating expenses of the Federal Government has had wide circulation in newspaper columns and magazines during the past 20 years. It has often been associated with a conclusion that the old-age and survivors insurance trust fund has no reality, because its moneys invested in Federal securities have been spent. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare has received numerous letters repeating these criticisms


Contributions paid under the old-age and survivors insurance and disability programs are earmarked for these programs. Although paid initially to the Treasury through the Internal Revenue Service, they are immediately transferred to the old-age and survivors insurance and disability insurance trust funds in accordance with the provisions of the law. The contributions are not available to the Treasury Department to be used like general revenue taxes for the operating expenses of the Federal Government.

Contribution receipts of the trust funds not needed for current disbursements under the program are invested by the Managing Trustee in Federal obligations. The trust fund money thus invested forms part of the borrowings of the Federal Treasury and, like borrowings from other investors, it is used by the Treasury to meet the general expenses of the Government. The Federal obligations purchased and held by the trust funds are part of the public debt and they are interest-bearing assets of then funds. All contribution receipts of the trust funds that are not used for the current benefit and administrative expenses of the programs thus remain invested assets of the trust funds.



Some persons covered by the program have the idea that their contributions go into an individual account, and that any benefits paid come out of such an account. Thus they ask what happens to their money in case they and their families do not receive benefits of at least equal value to what they have paid in contributions; they expect that they should receive benefits regardless of whether they have retired; and they expect benefit amounts to vary with the amount of contributions.


Provisions guaranteeing a return of the worker's own contributions were included in the original Social Security Act of 1935 but were repealed by the amendments of 1939. Under present law benefit amounts are intended to replace, in part, the presumptive earnings loss due to the death, disability or retirement of the worker. Benefit amounts are directly related to a worker's average earnings rather than to the total earnings credited to his account or to the total contributions paid on those earnings.



Ever since monthly benefits first became payable in 1940, it has been possible for persons already close to retirement age when covered under the program to draw full benefits related to average earnings rather than partial benefits reflecting the small amount they had contributed. The requirements for eligibility for benefits were that the person had to have worked for roughly half the time elapsing after 1936 (the starting point for coverage) and before the year of the person's attainment of age 65. The average wage was computed over this elapsed period.

The 1950 amendments provided a "new start" for determining benefit eligibility. Under these amendments, the starting year was moved up to 1951. Workers who had been covered during half as many quarters as the number that elapsed after 1950 and before attainment of age 65 (but with a minimum of at least 6 quarters) were made eligible. Moreover, quarters of coverage earned at any time after 1936 could be counted in meeting the eligibility requirement. As a result, many people became eligible for benefits during the years 1951-54 after having contributed for only 18 months, and people are still being added to the beneficiary rolls after having contributed only a few years. In contrast, a person retiring at age 65 in June 1950 needed 6.5 years of coverage to receive any benefits and 13 years of coverage to receive full-rate benefits.

Because it was decided that full-rate or approximately full-rate benefits ought to be payable in the early years of the program to persons with only short periods of covered employment, the law provides for basing benefits on average wages rather than on total wages or contributions. The average monthly wage is defined as the total earnings after 1950 (or after attainment of age 22) and before the date of death or entitlement to old-age insurance benefits (but not counting the 5 years of lowest or no earnings) divided by the number of months elapsed during the same period. By this definition, monthly benefits for a person continuously employed for only a few years after 1950 are approximately the same as for a person with the same average monthly wage, as computed under the law, based on continuous employment (and contributions) for a much longer period.

During the years 1951-57, members of Congress and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare have received numerous letters, principally from persons who had contributed for a number of years, protesting against the payment of full-rate benefits to people who have contributed only a short time. Persons who have criticized the old-age and survivors insurance trust fund as deficient when judged by standards applicable to individually purchased private insurance usually have objected also to this aspect of the program. Typical of this group are Mr. Manion (9 and 10), Mr. Matteson (11), and Mr. Stokes (18).


In the old-age and survivors insurance program, benefits are not intended to be directly and proportionately related to the amount of the worker's contributions. Instead, the benefit provisions were designed so as to relate benefits to the worker's previous earnings and to replace part of the wage loss resulting from retirement or the death of the breadwinner.

Payment of full-rate benefits to persons who have contributed only a short period of time has characterized the old-age and survivors insurance program ever since monthly benefits first became payable in 1940. If the benefits paid in the early years were no larger than the monthly amounts that could be financed by contributions paid by and on behalf of the individual beneficiary, they would be so small as to defeat the purposes of the program. Similar reasons have led private employers in their employee pension plans to grant "prior service credits" to employees near retirement age when the plan was inaugurated, so that such employees may qualify for pension amounts much more nearly adequate than they could be if they were based solely on the individual's service after the pension plan's inauguration.

In extending the coverage of the program to millions of additional workers in 1950, 1951, and 1956 Congress amended the insured status requirements and benefit provisions of the Social Security Act to afford full-rate benefits to the newly covered workers so that they would not be penalized for their late coverage. These changes were made for the same reason that similar liberal insured status requirements and benefit provisions were adopted for older workers in 1939. The new and more liberal provisions were made to apply to all workers, not just the newly covered.

In these early years of the program, a great majority of all insured workers have protection that greatly exceeds in value the contributions they have paid under the program. In no other way could the purposes of the program be accomplished. Payment of full-rate benefits to persons who have contributed only a short time, however, is a relatively temporary feature of the program. After the present transitional period, persons who have not had a substantial period of covered employment will not be able to qualify for benefits at all, and full-rate benefits will be payable only to those who have contributed regularly over most of their working lifetime.

Sources Cited in Misunderstandings of Social Security Financing

1. Adams, Albert C. "Can We Have Sound Social Security?" (Speech presenting a film strip). Convention of the National Association of Life Underwriters at Detroit, Michigan, September 16, 1957.

2. Campbell, Donald F., Jr. "Twenty Years of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance." The Proceedings, Conference of Actuaries in Public Practice, 1955-56 pages 165-81.

3. Economic Security Act (Hearings on S. 1130). Senate Committee on Finance, 74th Congress, 1 st session, 1935.

4. Flynn, John T. "The Social Security 'Reserve' Swindle."
Harper's Magazine, February 1939, pages 238-48.

5. Flynn, John T. "Our Present Dishonest Federal Old Age Pension Plan."
The Reader's Digest. May 1947, pages 4-8.

6. Long-Range Cost Estimates for OASI 1954. (Actuarial Study No. 39). Division of the Actuary, Social Security Administration, December 1954.

7. Lutz, Harley L.
Social Security: Its Present and Future Fiscal Aspects. The Tax Foundation, June 1944.

8. Lutz,, Harley L.
Guideposts to a Free Economy. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., December 1945.

9. Manion, Clarence E. "Is Our Compulsory Old Age Insurance An Actuarial Fraud?" Broadcast No. 13, Mutual Broadcasting System, South Bend, Indiana, December 26, 1954.

10. Manion, Clarence E. "Social Security Robs Peter to Pay Paul." Weekly Broadcast No. 7. Mutual Broadcasting System, South Bend, Indiana, February 5, 1956.

11.Matteson, William J. "What Will Social Security Mean to You?" American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington., Massachusetts, 1955 (annual editions have been published beginning 1951).

12. Mariam, Lewis., and Schlotterbeck, Karl.
The Cost and Financing of Social. Security. The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.., 1950.

13. "Pensions or Handouts: Social Security Costs are Getting Out of Control." Barron's, June 10, 1957, page 1.

14. "Social Security Heads for First Deficit as Outgo Tops Forecast."
The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, July 17, 1957, page 1.

15. Social Security Revision. (Hearings on H.R. 6000). Senate Committee on Finance, 81st Congress, 2nd session, 1950.

16. "Social Security: The System Is Running in the Red."
Time, August 26, 1957, page 72.

17. "Something In It for Everybody."
Business Week, August 3, 1957 Pages 90-93.

18. Stokes, Dillard.
Social Security - Fact and Fancy. Henry Regnery Company, 1956.

19. The Revenue
Bill of 1943 (Senate Report No. 627, to accompany H.R. 3687). Senate Committee on Finance, 78th Congress 1st session, December 22, 1943.

20. "23 Billions for Pensions - And More to Come."
United States News and World Report, July 26, 1957, pages 122-3.

21. Vandenberg, Arthur H. "Freezing the Social Security Tax Rate for 1943."
The Congressional Record, October 9, 1942, page 8266.

22. Vandenberg, Arthur H. "Freezing the Social Security Tax Rate for 1944."
The Congressional Record, January 11, 1944, page 42.