6 December 2021

Social Security Costs Expected to Exceed Total Income in 2021 as Covid-19 Takes Financial Toll

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WASHINGTON—The severe economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic last year weighed on the financial health of Social Security, but not nearly as much as many forecasters originally feared, according to new projections of the program’s finances.

Trustees for the Social Security trust fund in an annual report released Tuesday said the program is expected to pay benefits that exceed its income in 2021, the same as it anticipated last year at the outset of the pandemic.

While the pandemic had a significant impact on the program, the trustees said, they expect Social Security’s reserves to be depleted by 2034, only one year sooner than they estimated in their April 2020 report. Once the reserves are exhausted, benefits would be reduced automatically unless Congress steps in to shore up the program, which lawmakers have done previously.

The trustees now project elevated mortality rates related to the pandemic through 2023, and expect lower immigration and child-bearing this year and next, compared with their 2020 estimates. They also expect the pandemic has lowered worker productivity and thus economic output permanently.

“These alterations to near-term data and assumptions all significantly impact the outlook of the programs,” they said in the report.

Senior administration officials also said they expect higher inflation this year will significantly boost benefits next year, estimating Social Security beneficiaries could see close to a 6% cost-of-living increase. That would be the highest annual benefit increase since 2008, when rising gas prices pushed up the cost-of-living adjustment to 5.8%, officials said.

By comparison, beneficiaries saw a 1.3% cost-of-living adjustment in 2021, and a 1.6% adjustment in 2020.

Tuesday’s report was the first formal update from the Social Security trustees incorporating their best estimates of the effects of the pandemic, which triggered widespread business closures and layoffs last year as state and local officials imposed restrictions to curb the spread of new cases.

The resulting deep recession significantly reduced payroll tax revenue, the program’s main source of income. That loss of income was partially offset by the fact that the virus pushed up mortality rates, especially among older Americans who were more likely to be beneficiaries, thus reducing near-term program costs, senior administration officials said.

Over the long term, however, it isn’t clear how the pandemic will affect the program. It is possible that if the virus leads to the deaths of the most vulnerable or sickest Americans, the potential beneficiaries who are left may be healthier overall and live longer, boosting costs. On the other hand, those who survived Covid-19 may suffer long-term health effects that lead to earlier death or disability.

“There is an incredible amount of uncertainty,” one senior administration official said. “We haven’t lived through a pandemic like this in over 100 years, so we don’t know what the effects are.”

Social Security consists of two programs, one for retirees and one for people who claim disability benefits. The program’s income comes from tax revenue and interest from its trust fund.

In Tuesday’s report, the trustees estimated the retirement program will be able to pay full benefits on a timely basis until 2033, one year earlier than last year. After that, the program would have enough income to pay about 76% of scheduled benefits unless Congress steps in to shore up the program.

They estimated the disability fund would run out in 2057, eight years later than projected in last year’s report, though they noted that disability applications continued to decline last year.

Taken together, the programs would be able to pay 78% of scheduled benefits after the trust funds are depleted in 2034.

The report also said Medicare’s hospital insurance fund would be depleted in 2026, unchanged from last year’s report, as program costs continue to exceed the trust fund’s income.

The costs of Medicare and Social Security are projected to rise substantially as a share of the economy over the next two decades, as a wave of retiring baby boomers boosts the number of beneficiaries, and lower birth rates over the past few decades weigh on employment growth and economic output.

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