Band-Aid on Social Security card
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Here's a Quick Guide to Fixing Social Security

Nov 04, 2014

Social Security likely will move back to center stage after this week’s elections. The program’s finances have eroded bit by bit for years, drawing calls for change every year. But nothing has been done. Now Congress could continue kicking this can down the road. Or it could decide to actually tackle the problem and change things, most likely as part of a broader look that also includes Medicare and Medicaid.

With favorable prospects for a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, stories already abound about raising the retirement age, changing the annual cost-of-living adjustment or raising the ceiling on earnings subject to the payroll tax.

AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare and other Social Security support groups have gone on the offensive. Far from just defending the program from cuts, they are speaking out aggressively about the merits of raising benefits

All of which makes a recent report from the Social Security Administration particularly timely. It reviews more than 120 ideas for changing Social Security and calculates how each would affect the program’s future finances. The report was overseen by Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration. If any source is both informed and free from political spin, it is this one.

Within this list are enough changes to balance the program several times over during the next 75 years. But then, this has never been the issue. Rather, the contentious debate has been over the “right” mix of changes. And people have not been able to agree on that.

Here’s a quick guide to the reforms that would have the biggest impact, according to the report. It is tempting to just add up the financial impact of each change to see if they erase the Social Security shortfall. But, as the report notes, some reforms would affect others. So although the sum of impact of the changes will give you a ballpark estimate, the actual results are likely to be a bit different.

Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA). The annual cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security benefits (1.7% for 2015) has received lots of attention, primarily from a proposal to substitute a less-generous “chained” Consumer Price Index for the current inflation measure used to set the yearly change. Using the chained CPI would close 19% of the program’s projected shortfall. A more draconian measure—reducing the COLA by a percentage point from what it would otherwise be—would cut 61% of the shortfall all by itself. However, senior’s groups think the COLA should be increased to more accurately reflect the larger weight of health costs for older consumers. This proposal would raise the shortfall by 13%.

Monthly Benefits. Adjusting the complex formulas used to calculate benefits could make big dents in the shortfall. Right now, benefit increases are tied to changes in average wages. Linking them instead to general price inflation could cut as much as 90% of the system’s shortfall. That’s because wages historically have risen by more than the rate of inflation, so this change would effectively reduce the size of future benefit increases. There also are a slew of suggested sweeteners that would reduce the pain of smaller increases, although they tend not to add much to the shortfall.

Retirement Age. The normal retirement age for benefits is now 66 and set to rise to 67 in the year 2027. Raising it to 68 over a six-year period would shave 15% from the shortfall, while increasing it to 69 over 12 years would cut 35% off the long-term deficit. Raising the age to 70 over a shorter time period, and automatically adjusting it to reflect expected longevity gains, would cut the shortfall by an even larger 48%—but that's only if the hike is combined with an increase in the earliest age for claiming benefits from 62 to 64. Reducing benefits to early retirees is strongly opposed by senior and labor groups who argue that workers in physically demanding jobs are often forced to retire early for health reasons.

Payroll Taxes and Covered Earnings. The system could be balanced by raising the payroll tax rate from its current level of 12.4% (paid half and half by employees and employers). There is a separate payroll tax for Medicare. Other proposals would raise the wage ceiling subject to payment taxes, which will rise to $118,500 in 2015. These suggestions would have large effects on program shortfalls. Simply eliminating the wage ceiling for employer payments would cut 50% from the projected 75-year deficit. Raising the ceiling so that 90% of earned wages are subject to Social Security taxes would cut 48% of the deficit. The stiffest medicine – raising the tax rate from 12.4% to 15.5%—would balance the program all by itself, and then some. On the flip side, a proposal to exempt people with more than 45 years of earnings from payroll taxes would widen the deficit by 11%. Such a change, advocates say, would improve retiree incomes and stop penalizing older workers, who must continue payroll taxes even thought their benefits do not rise as a result.

Trust Fund Investments. Social Security reserves are now invested in a special issue of U.S. Treasury Securities. Putting some of these funds into the stock market has long been a high priority of many conservatives, and strongly opposed by liberal groups. If 40% of trust funds were invested in stocks, and if they earned an annual return of 6.4%, after calculating the effects of inflation, this would close 21% of the program’s long-term funding shortfall. For comparison, the report assumed the long-term returns of the special issue of Treasury securities would be 2.9% a year, after inflation.

Getting the “right” mix of changes would be terrific, but enacting even a mediocre compromises next year would be far, far better. Think about a series of trade-offs. One side might get a later retirement age and reductions in the rate of future benefit growth, from changes to the COLA and annual wage base. The other side could get hefty hikes in payroll taxes for wealthier workers and more protection for lower-income, early retirees. Now if we could only get Congress to start the negotiations.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published early next year by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

More on Social Security:

3 Smart Fixes for Social Security and Medicare

Social Security is the Best Deal

Can We Save Social Security?

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