Research and Analysis by Kevin Whitman
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 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.
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.
An Overview of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Context of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income
The American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population is understudied in a variety of policy contexts. This article compares AIAN socioeconomic characteristics with those of the total population, focusing on patterns of adult Social Security benefit and Supplemental Security Income receipt. The analysis takes advantage of the relatively large AIAN sample size provided by the 2005–2009 American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample.
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.
Managing Independence: The Governance Components of the National Railroad Retirement Investment Trust
This article reviews the management components of the National Railroad Retirement Investment Trust (NRRIT) and their relationship to political independence. Centralized equity investment is sometimes proposed as a method for improving Social Security program financing and, echoing the debate over the NRRIT, politicized investment decisions are seen as one potential obstacle to the policy's success. This article does not advocate for or against investing Social Security's trust fund assets in equities, but examines the NRRIT's structure and experience to provide background information for policymakers.
As of 2009, Social Security's Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program limits the amount of annual earnings subject to taxation at $106,800, and this value generally increases annually based on changes in the national average wage index. This brief uses Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) projections to compare the distributional effects of four options for raising the maximum taxable earnings amount beyond its scheduled levels. Two of the options would raise this value so that it covers 90 percent of all covered earnings and two would remove the maximum completely. Within each set of options, the proposals are differentiated by whether the new taxable amounts are used in computing benefits. Most workers would not be affected by these proposals, but some higher earners would experience a substantial increase in taxes. Correspondingly, benefit increases are largely isolated to higher earners, although the return in benefits for taxes paid would also decline. Because the proposals are targeted toward high earners, Social Security's progressivity would increase.
The Railroad Retirement program was established in the 1930s. It provides retirement, survivor, unemployment, and sickness benefits to individuals who have spent a substantial portion of their career in railroad employment, as well as to these workers' families. This article describes the history, benefit structure, and funding of the Railroad Retirement program.
This article uses a Restricted-Use File of the 2001 Marital History Topical Module to the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to examine women's marital histories in relation to Social Security spouse and widow benefit eligibility. To assess marital trends over time, the authors compare SIPP estimates to data reported in Iams and Ycas. 1988 article, "Women, Marriage and Social Security Benefits," which used the 1985 Marital History Supplement to the Current Population Survey. The results shed light on important links between sociodemographic trends in marriage and Social Security beneficiaries. Over three-fourths of women aged 40 to 69 in 2001 already had marital histories that guarantee them the option of a spouse or widow benefit at retirement. However, a smaller proportion of these women would be potentially eligible to receive spouse or widow benefits compared to their counterparts in 1985 due to changes in patterns in marriage, particularly among younger women in the baby-boom cohort. Notable shifts include rising proportions of currently divorced women without a 10-year marriage and never-married women.
This article provides an overview of the literature on best practices for retirement savings plan design and financial education in the workplace. Without a successful plan design, financial education will not be effective and even a well-structured plan can fail to achieve retirement savings goals without financial education. The main components of a retirement savings program that employers must consider include options for enrollment, investment choices, employer matching of contributions, and distributions over the working career and at retirement. In addition, employers control the core aspects of financial education, such as the topics covered, the delivery methods used, the frequency with which it is offered, and its general availability.