A reader recently forwarded me an email that began, “Who died before they collected Social Security?” It asked how many people only collected a small portion of what they paid into Social Security because they, or a spouse, died soon after retiring. Then it screamed in all caps, “Where Did That Money Go?”
The rest of the piece, after calculations of how much an average person pays into Social Security, suggested the government is short-changing those who die before they receive back in benefits everything they paid in. It claimed that Social Security premiums were to have been put in a “locked box,” that instead they were loaned to the US Treasury, and that Social Security is therefore running out of money.
The many misstatements and errors in this piece highlight a common misunderstanding about the Social Security insurance program. It is not an income tax. Nor is it actually insurance or an investment.
If you earn a salary, you are familiar with the FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) tax that, like federal income tax, is withheld from your paycheck. Everyone must pay it on their first $118,500 of earned income. The current rate for employees is 7.65% (6.2% for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare), an amount matched by employers. The self-employed pay 15.3%.
FICA payments are not an income tax, but are insurance premiums used to fund the Social Security program. It is a direct transfer program, meaning the money coming into the plan is immediately paid out to retired or disabled participants. The proceeds are not directly deposited to the general account to be spent however Congress wishes.
However, in the past, because more money came into Social Security than was paid out in benefits, the program did loan the excess to the US Treasury Department (receiving bonds in return) to fund the operating expenses of the federal government. The program built up a significant investment in US Treasuries until 2010, when it began paying more out in benefits than it receives from participants. The program is now beginning to redeem the bonds. Officials project that in 2033 the program will have depleted the investment in bonds and will need to either adjust benefits, raise the payroll tax, or borrow from the US Treasury.
Social Security isn’t insurance in the sense that insurance pays only when a person suffers a loss. With Social Security, everyone who has worked for more than 10 years will collect a monthly income upon retirement.
It is also not a savings account or a retirement plan like an IRA or a 401(k). It is not set aside in a segregated account with your name on it. The money you pay in doesn’t accumulate or earn interest. If Social Security were designed as a retirement plan that would refund what participants pay in, plus some type of return, the payroll tax would far surpass 15.3%.
So if Social Security isn’t an income tax, an insurance plan, or a retirement plan, what is it? It’s an annuity. Participants are guaranteed a monthly income for life; a lesser amount if they retire at age 62 or a higher amount if they wait until full retirement age or later.
Like any annuity, when you die the payments stop. The amount of the payroll tax/premium incorporates actuarial estimates of how many people will die before the average mortality age or live long past it. The money paid in by people who die early is not “missing.”
If you have questions about Social Security, you can find detailed information at www.socialsecurity.gov. It’s a much more reliable source than anonymous forwarded emails.