WASHINGTON People retiring today are part of the first generation of workers who have paid more in Social Security taxes during their careers than they will receive in benefits after they retire. Its a historic shift that will get worse for future retirees, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Previous generations got a much better bargain, mainly because payroll taxes were very low when Social Security was enacted in the 1930s and remained so for decades.
For the early generations, it was an incredibly good deal, said Andrew Biggs, a former deputy Social Security commissioner who is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The government gave you free money, and getting free money is popular.
If you retired in 1960, you could expect to get back seven times more in benefits than you paid in Social Security taxes, and more if you were a low-income worker, as long you made it to age 78 for men and 81 for women.
As recently as 1985, workers at every income level could retire and expect to get more in benefits than they paid in Social Security taxes, though they didnt do quite as well as their parents and grandparents.
A married couple retiring last year after both spouses earned average lifetime wages paid about $598,000 in Social Security taxes during their careers. They can expect to collect about $556,000 in benefits, if the man lives to 82 and the woman lives to 85, according to a 2011 study by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.
Social Security benefits are progressive, so most low-income workers retiring today still will get slightly more in benefits than they paid in taxes. Most high-income workers started getting less in benefits than they paid in taxes in the 1990s, according to data from the Social Security Administration.
The shift among middle-income workers is happening just as millions of baby boomers are reaching retirement, leaving relatively fewer workers behind to pay into the system. Its coming at a critical time for Social Security, the federal governments largest program.
The trustees who oversee Social Security say its funds, which have been built up during the last 30 years with surplus payroll taxes, will run dry in 2033 unless Congress acts. At that point, payroll taxes would provide enough revenue each year to pay only about 75 percent of benefits.
To cover the shortfall, future retirees probably will have to pay higher taxes while they are working, accept lower benefits after they retire, or some combination of both.
Future generations are going to do worse because either they are going to get fewer benefits or they are going to pay higher taxes, said Eugene Steuerle, a former Treasury official who has studied the issue as a fellow at the Urban Institute.