If you blinked last week, you may have missed the latest report from the trustees of the Social Security and Medicare systems. But for the sake of our children and grandchildren, not to mention the country’s economic future, America’s looming entitlements crisis is worth paying attention to.
Start with Social Security. This year, the system’s trustees pegged its official “insolvency” date at 2034, the same as in last year’s report. Unfortunately for those under age 51, of course, we are now a year closer to that date than we were a year ago. And unless something changes dramatically between now and then, current law will require benefits to be slashed by 21 percent at that point.
But focusing on that top-line number badly understates Social Security’s real problems. Since 2009, Social Security has taken in less in taxes than it pays out in benefits. It has been using “attributed” interest to maintain a positive balance. But this year, benefits exceeded both taxes and interest, meaning that Social Security had to dip into the principal of the Social Security Trust Fund for the first time.
Of course, all of this is merely a bookkeeping fiction. The Social Security Trust Fund is not — and never has been — an asset that can be used to pay benefits. Instead, it is an accounting measure of how much money Social Security can draw from general revenues. Since the government doesn’t have any extra cash socked away — you may have noticed that we are running a $21 trillion debt — any Social Security shortfall only adds to the growing tide of red ink.