Policy Briefs

Distributional Effects of Applying Social Security Taxes to Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance Premiums
No. 2016-01 (released August 2016)
by Kathleen Romig, Dave Shoffner, and Kevin Whitman

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.

Proposed Revisions to the Special Minimum Benefit for Low Lifetime Earners
No. 2014-01 (released September 2014)
by Glenn R. Springstead, Kevin Whitman, and Dave Shoffner

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 Projected Effects of Social Security Benefit Increase Options for Older Beneficiaries
No. 2013-01 (released October 2013)
by Kevin Whitman and Dave Shoffner

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.

The Evolution of Social Security's Taxable Maximum
No. 2011-02 (released September 2011)
by Kevin Whitman and Dave Shoffner

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.

Distributional Effects of Accelerating and Extending the Increase in the Full Retirement Age
No. 2011-01 (released January 2011)
by Glenn R. Springstead

This policy brief compares two options set forth by the Social Security Advisory Board to increase the full retirement age (FRA), the age at which claimants may receive unreduced Social Security old-age benefits. One option would raise the FRA from the current target of 67 years to 68 years; the other would raise the FRA to 70 years. The brief examines the effects of both options on the level of benefits of Social Security beneficiaries aged 62 or older in 2070 using Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) projections, and on Trust Fund solvency using estimates from the Social Security Administration's Office of the Chief Actuary. The brief finds that both options would reduce benefits, improve solvency, and slightly increase the poverty rate. Within each option, effects on benefits are relatively uniform across beneficiary characteristics, although some surviving spouse and disabled beneficiaries would be shielded from benefit reductions.

Distributional Effects of Price Indexing Social Security Benefits
No. 2010-03 (released November 2010)
by Mark A. Sarney

This policy brief compares five options (four progressive price indexing and one full price indexing option) set forth by the Social Security Advisory Board to index initial benefits to price growth. It examines the distribution of benefits of Social Security beneficiaries aged 62 or older in 2030, 2050, and 2070 using Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) model projections. The brief finds that the full price indexing option Shield 0% would more than achieve long-term solvency by reducing benefits by about 35 percent in 2070 and would increase the aged poverty rate compared with scheduled levels. The four progressive price indexing options (Shields 30%, 40%, 50%, 60%) would produce smaller benefit reductions by exempting varying proportions of lower earners from price indexing. Those options would not increase poverty above scheduled levels, but would reduce benefits for some low earners because their auxiliary benefits come from the reduced benefits of a higher-earning spouse. The progressive price indexing options would make Social Security more progressive compared with scheduled and payable benefits, both when looking at household benefit reductions by household income in a given year and when examining the distribution of lifetime taxes and benefits.

Distributional Effects of Reducing the Social Security Benefit Formula
No. 2010-02 (released November 2010)
by Glenn R. Springstead

A person's Social Security benefit, or primary insurance amount (PIA), is 90 percent of the lowest portion of lifetime earnings, plus 32 percent of the middle portion of lifetime earnings, plus 15 percent of the highest portion of lifetime earnings. This policy brief analyzes the distributional effects of three options (the three-point, five-point and upper) discussed by the Social Security Advisory Board to reduce the PIA. The first option would reduce the PIA by 3 percentage points; the second would reduce it by 5 percentage points; and the third would reduce the 32 and 15 percentages of the PIA to 21 and 10 percent, respectively. The third option would exempt about one quarter of the lowest earning beneficiaries, while reducing benefits by a median average of 19 percent in 2070. None would eliminate Social Security's long-term fiscal imbalance, although the third option would eliminate more (76 percent) of the deficit than the three-point (18 percent) and five-point (31 percent) options.

Distributional Effects of Raising the Social Security Payroll Tax
No. 2010-01 (released April 2010)
by Dave Shoffner

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.

Distributional Effects of Raising the Social Security Taxable Maximum
No. 2009-01 (released July 2009)
by Kevin Whitman

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.

Distributional Effects of Reducing the Cost-of-Living Adjustments
No. 2008-03 (released November 2008)
by Anya Olsen

Each year, Social Security benefits increase automatically with the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which is based on the rise in the consumer price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers (CPI-W). The analysis uses Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) projections to compare the distributional effects of three policy options discussed by the Social Security Advisory Board to improve system solvency.

Distributional Effects of Increasing the Benefit Computation Period
No. 2008-02 (released August 2008)
by Mark A. Sarney

The computation period is the number of highest earning years, currently 35, that are used to compute the career average earnings on which Social Security benefits are based. The brief uses MINT model projections to compare the distributional effects of two policy options discussed by the Social Security Advisory Board.

Efforts Since 2000 to Simplify the SSI Program: Legislative and Regulatory Changes
No. 2008-01 (released April 2008)
by Rene Parent and Richard Balkus

Supplemental Security Income SSI is a federally administered, means-tested program that provides monthly payments to blind, disabled, or aged persons. This policy brief summarizes efforts since 2000 to simplify the SSI program through policy changes affecting the reporting of income and resources. The Social Security Protection Act (SSPA) of 2004 has provisions that simplify the treatment of infrequent and irregular income, interest and dividend income, income earned by a student, one-time income in an initial month of eligibility, military pay, and exclusion of certain income from countable resources. Final regulations published in 2005 contain simplifications in the definition of income to exclude clothing, household goods and personal effects, and automobiles from countable resources. This brief explains those changes and describes other options that have been considered.

Portfolio Theory, Life-Cycle Investing, and Retirement Income
No. 2007-02 (released October 2007)
by Dale Kintzel

There has been much discussion recently about life-cycle funds and their role in providing a secure retirement income for older Americans. These funds, which gradually shift account assets from broad-based stock funds to bond funds as a participant ages, are becoming an important vehicle for retirement savings. This policy brief explores the economic rationale behind the life-cycle approach and the advantages and limitations of life-cycle funds.

Considerations for Potential Proposals to Change the Earliest Eligibility Age for Retirement
No. 2007-01 (released October 2007)
by Pat Vinkenes, Alice H. Wade, Mark A. Sarney, and Tim Kelley

The earliest eligibility age (EEA) interacts with many other Social Security program rules, including the benefit formula and insured status requirements. Proposals to increase the EEA could affect some or all of these other rules depending on how policymakers design the proposal. By using a hypothetical proposal that increases the EEA, this policy brief illustrates how these interactions work and discusses the options that policymakers would need to consider.

Defined Contribution Pension Plans and the Supplemental Security Income Program
No. 2006-01 (released March 2006)
by Rene Parent

This policy brief analyzes changes in the employer-sponsored pension system and the relationship of these changes to the Supplemental Security Income program's treatment of retirement plans. SSI does not treat assets in defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plans in the same manner. The primary difference is that a potential SSI recipient has access to the funds in a defined contribution plan, but a participant in the defined benefit plan has no access to the pension until attaining a specific age. The increasing prevalence of the defined contribution retirement plan and the decreasing prevalence of the defined benefit plan is one significant change—a trend that has gained momentum since the mid-1980s. The importance of these issues relates to the extent of pension plan holdings among SSI applicants and recipients, which is in turn directly related to their involvement in the labor force. The policy brief discusses three alternate approaches to SSI treatment of defined contribution retirement plans, one of which is to retain the current policy.

The Distributional Consequences of a "No-Action" Scenario: Updated Results
No. 2005-01 (released July 2005)

Under the Social Security program, benefits are paid to retired workers, survivors, and disabled persons out of two trust funds—the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and the Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds. In their 2005 report, the Social Security Trustees projected that the combined OASDI trust funds would be exhausted in 2041. Because the trust funds are used to pay benefits, retirement benefits would have to be reduced somewhat in 2041 and more drastically in 2042.

If no action were taken to strengthen Social Security, the benefit reductions necessitated by the exhaustion of the trust funds would double the poverty rate of Social Security beneficiaries aged 64–78 in 2042, from 1.5 percent to 3.3 percent. However, this increased poverty rate would still be lower than the current poverty rate for beneficiaries aged 62–76, which is 4.6 percent. In addition, the trust funds' exhaustion could lead to lower returns on payroll taxes using traditional "money's-worth" measures.

How Many SSI Recipients Live with Other Recipients?
No. 2004-03 (released June 2004)
by Susan Wilschke

The Office of Policy recently completed an analysis of the prevalence of multirecipient households in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. The study was based on Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) data for December 1998 matched to administrative records from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Child Support Payments and the SSI Program
No. 2004-02 (released February 2004)
by Susan Wilschke and Richard Balkus

In determining the benefit amount for a child, the Supplemental Security Income program excludes one-third of child support payments from countable income. Legislation reauthorizing the 1996 welfare reform law contains provisions that would encourage states to allow children receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to keep more of the child support paid by an absent parent. These potential changes provide impetus to revisit the way the SSI program treats child support.

The Distributional Consequences of a "No-Action" Scenario
No. 2004-01 (released February 2004)
by Andrew G. Biggs

The 2001 report of the Social Security trustees projected that the combined trust funds for the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance programs will be exhausted in 2038. This analysis explains the effects of insolvency on future retirement benefits and poverty rates of beneficiaries if no action is taken to strengthen Social Security.