Imagine this: Barack Obama proposes a Social Security payroll tax cut for low earners. Workers earning up to $8,000 per year would receive back the full 6.2% employee share of the 12.4% total payroll tax, up to $500 per year. Workers earning over $8,000 would receive $500 each, with this credit phasing out for individuals earning between $75,000 and $85,000.
While Social Security has always been progressive, many would say this plan goes too far and risks turning Social Security into a “welfare program.” Low earners receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes — meaning their “net tax” is already negative — and Mr. Obama’s plan would increase net subsidies from the program.
Moreover, this payroll tax cut plan would reduce Social Security’s tax revenues by around $710 billion over the next 10 years. If made permanent, the Obama tax cut would increase Social Security’s long-term deficit by almost 60% and push the program into insolvency in 2034, versus 2041 under current projections.
To fill the hole in Social Security’s finances, Mr. Obama would increase income taxes on high earners and pour that money into Social Security. This would be the first time that income tax revenues have been used to finance Social Security, which has always relied on its own dedicated payroll tax to differentiate itself from other government programs. Filling the gap with higher taxes on high earners would further increase Social Security’s progressivity, pushing it closer toward a welfare-program approach.
So Mr. Obama has in essence proposed cutting Social Security taxes for low earners, which would shift the system toward a “welfare” approach and sharply increase its long-term deficit. To fill the funding gap, he will raise taxes on high earners and funnel the money into Social Security, making the system even more progressive and breaking a long tradition against funding Social Security with income taxes.
Mr. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He blogs on Social Security policy at www.andrewgbiggs.blogspot.com.