Research & Analysis by Dave Shoffner
Distributional Effects of Applying Social Security Taxes to Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance Premiums
This policy brief analyzes how applying the Social Security tax to employer-sponsored health insurance premiums could affect Social Security beneficiaries. Specifically, the brief examines an option presented by the Social Security Advisory Board in which both employee and employer premiums would count as wages for Social Security tax calculations, and later for benefit calculations. Using the Modeling Income in the Near Term model, the results show that for most Social Security beneficiaries aged 60 or older from 2017 to 2080, benefits would gradually increase and the poverty rate would decrease faster than the rate under current law. Counting employer-sponsored health insurance premiums as wages for Social Security purposes would increase Social Security taxes for most individuals and those taxes would increase more than Social Security benefits for individuals at all earning levels.
Social Security's family maximum rules limit the total benefits payable to a beneficiary's family. Different family maximum rules apply to retirement and survivor benefits than to disability benefits. The rules for calculating family maximum benefits are complicated. In some particularly complex cases, it is difficult to properly implement the family maximum, which can result in over- or underpayments. This article explains how the family maximum rules work and describes their evolution. The authors use Modeling Income in the Near Term, Version 6 data to analyze who is affected by the family maximum and to what extent their benefits are changed.
This article explores how faster rates of wage growth for college graduates than for nongraduates could affect the Social Security benefits of future retirees. Using a Social Security Administration microsimulation model called Modeling Income in the Near Term, the authors estimate the effect of different rates of wage growth by educational attainment on the future earnings and Social Security benefits of individuals born between 1965 and 1979, sometimes referred to as “Generation X.” They find that for members of the 1965–1979 birth cohorts, different rates of wage growth by education would substantially increase the gap in annual earnings between college graduates and nongraduates, but that differences in Social Security benefits would increase by a smaller proportion, primarily because of Social Security's progressive benefit formula.
Social Security's special minimum benefit is declining in relative value, does not provide a full benefit equal to the poverty threshold, and reaches fewer beneficiaries each year. Members of Congress and other key policymakers have proposed several methods for revising the special minimum benefit, either as part of reforming Social Security more broadly or as stand-alone policy options. Most of the new options would index the benefit to wages, helping ensure its sustainability into the future. The options differ in how they define a “year of coverage,” how many years of coverage are required to be eligible for any benefit increase, and how much the full benefit increase should be. Those choices will determine who will receive the benefit increase and how adequate their benefit will be.
The Effects of Alternative Demographic and Economic Assumptions on MINT Simulations: A Sensitivity Analysis
The Social Security Administration's (SSA's) Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) estimates income/wealth of future retirees. Estimates are based on demographic information from the Survey of Income and Program Participation: individual earnings histories and projections of interest rates, wage growth, mortality rates, and disability rates. Historically, MINT simulations were based exclusively on SSA's Office of the Chief Actuary's (OCACT's) intermediate-cost projections of key demographic/economic variables. The authors present the results of a sensitivity analysis in which they ran MINT using OCACT's low-cost/high-cost projections of mortality and disability trends. Those simulations estimated characteristics of the population aged 65 or older in 2040 under alternative projections of mortality/disability trends. The authors then describe simulations in which future real rates of return on stocks held in retirement accounts differ from the historical mean real rate of return used in baseline simulations. Sensitivity analyses can help MINT users choose model parameters with the greatest impact on simulation results.
In conjunction with larger Social Security solvency plans, many policymakers have proposed introducing benefit increases for older beneficiaries. This brief analyzes the projected effects of two such policy options on beneficiaries aged 85 or older in 2030 using the Modeling Income in the Near Term model. Both options target older beneficiaries' primary insurance amounts for a 5 percent increase, but they differ in how the increase would be calculated. Both proposals would increase monthly benefits for nearly all older beneficiaries, and both would reduce poverty levels among the aged, relative to currently scheduled benefits. However, the options differ in how the benefit increases would be distributed among older beneficiaries across shared lifetime earnings quintiles.
Measures of Health and Economic Well-Being Among American Indians and Alaska Natives Aged 62 or Older in 2030
This Research and Statistics Note uses Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) projections to provide an overview of the demographic, health, and economic characteristics of the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population aged 62 or older in 2030. MINT projects that the AIAN population will fare worse than the overall aged population in 2030 according to measures of health status, work limitation status, disability status, lifetime earnings, per capita Social Security benefits, per capita income, per capita wealth, and poverty.
Since its inception, Social Security has featured a taxable maximum (or "tax max"). In 1937, payroll taxes applied to the first $3,000 in earnings. In 2011, payroll taxes apply to the first $106,800 in earnings. This policy brief summarizes the changes that have occurred to the tax max and to earnings patterns over this period. From 1937 to 1975, Congress increased the tax max on an ad-hoc basis. Increases were justified by the desire to improve system financing and maintain meaningful benefits for middle and higher earners. Since 1975, the tax max has generally increased at the same rate as average wages each year. Some policymakers propose increasing the tax max beyond wage-indexed levels to help restore financial balance and to reflect growing earnings inequality, as workers earning more than the tax max have experienced higher earnings growth rates than other workers in recent decades.
Approximately 4 percent of the aged population will never receive Social Security benefits. This article examines the prevalence, demographic characteristics, and economic well-being of these never-beneficiaries. Most never-beneficiaries do not have sufficient earnings to be eligible for benefits, and most of these insufficient earners are either late-arriving immigrants or infrequent workers. About 44 percent of never-beneficiaries are in poverty, compared with about 4 percent of current and future beneficiaries.
A Profile of Social Security Child Beneficiaries and their Families: Sociodemographic and Economic Characteristics
This article presents the sociodemographic and economic characteristics of Social Security child beneficiaries. Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation matched with administrative benefit records, we find important differences in the incidence of child benefit receipt and average benefit amount across a number of individual and family-level characteristics. We also examine the demographic and income characteristics of the three beneficiary types: child of deceased worker, child of disabled worker, and child of retired worker.
This policy brief analyzes the lifetime tax effects of two options for addressing the Social Security system's long-range solvency by raising the Social Security payroll tax rate. The first, an immediate increase, would have raised the payroll tax rate from its current 12.4 percent to 14.4 percent in 2006; the second, a phased increase, would raise the payroll tax rate to 14.5 percent in 2020, and then to 16.6 percent in 2050. The brief also analyzes a comparative scenario in which the current tax rate is maintained through 2041 and then raised each year as needed to pay scheduled benefits. The lifetime taxes of people born 1936–2015 are analyzed using Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) projections. Results show that the longer a tax rate increase is delayed, the fewer workers are affected, but also the higher the increase in lifetime taxes for later generations. The results also show that both options reduce the cross-cohort variability in the ratio of benefits received to taxes paid.
This article examines the demographic challenge of an aging population on the U.S. Social Security system and the well-being of the elderly. It describes policy implications and some potential policy solutions to this challenge.
Poverty-level Annuitization Requirements in Social Security Proposals Incorporating Personal Retirement Accounts
In the current discussions of Social Security reform, voluntary personal retirement accounts have been proposed. Recent research and debate have focused on several aspects of these accounts, including how such accounts would affect aggregate saving, system finances, and benefit levels. Little attention, however, has been paid to policies that would govern the distribution of account balances. This analysis considers such policies with respect to the annuitization of account balances at retirement using the Social Security Administration's Modeling Income in the New Term (MINT) model and a modified version of a recent legislative proposal to evaluate the effects of partial annuitization requirements.