Rep. Steve Womack, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, likened the coming crunch to bailing “water from a sinking boat when you’ve got alligators nipping at you. And the alligators are Covid-19.”
“This is a train wreck that’s going to happen and you can see it coming,” said the Arkansas Republican.
There’s now an acceleration of what happened during the Great Recession a decade ago, when there was a 5 percent bump in eligible adults claiming Social Security an average of six months early. At the same time, soaring unemployment meant the government was collecting less in payroll taxes. The Obama administration estimated at the time that the fund would run out of money in 2037 — four years faster than expected before the financial crisis.
Today, the unemployment rate has already blown past the 10 percent peak logged during that recession, to 14.7 percent as of mid-April, according to data released this month. And some economists think it could climb as high as 20 percent. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 Americans still won’t have a job well into next year.
At least 36.5 million people aren’t paying payroll taxes into the program right now, and a second surge in early retirements is expected. Social Security benefits can be collected at the age of 62, though there is a penalty for not waiting until full retirement age.
Without accounting for the pandemic and the ensuing financial downturn, the federal government estimated last month that the program can fully issue benefits until 2035. At that point, only 76 percent of benefits can be paid out.
“It’s clearly going to be a lot worse than that,” said Alan Auerbach, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
When accounting for the pandemic, the Bipartisan Policy Institute estimates that the depletion date will move up from 2035 to 2029.
But any discussion will inevitably be fraught with the politics of entitlement reform, against the backdrop of gaping federal deficits and a debt-to-GDP ratio unseen since World War II. Much will hinge on the makeup of Congress and who occupies the White House after the 2020 election.
Congress never acts until it’s almost out of choices, said Womack, who himself is recommending a commission to study the issue and make recommendations to lawmakers instead of embracing a specific solution.
“I don’t know when we’re going to decide to take up the issue,” he said. “I hope and I pray that it‘s not when we have no other real options other than something draconian like big cuts or the fact that we’ve got to infuse a bunch of capital into the program to save people from a loss of benefits.“
Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Larson’s GOP counterpart on the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, also endorsed the idea of a commission, in addition to raising the eligibility age for the program. Reed conceded that a commission would give squeamish members a little cover from making tough choices themselves.
“It pains me to go on the record and say that about my colleagues and our leadership, but it is the reality of D.C.,” he said.
Larson has introduced a proposal called the Social Security 2100 Act which has gained attention but hasn’t moved in Congress. The bill would increase benefits and payroll taxes that are paid into the program. It would also apply the payroll tax to wages greater than $400,000, up from the current $137,700.
The conservative Heritage Foundation last year panned the bill for “broadening Social Security’s size and scope, raising taxes on all workers, and leaving them with less money to meet their daily needs.”
“This is a very politically problematic situation and Congress, by its very nature, doesn’t like dealing with politically problematic situations,” Womack said. “You’re going to have to take a vote to do something to save these programs and it’s going to be very unpopular with a lot of people. It’s probably going to be career-ending for some people.“