The financial outlook for Social Security is eroding more quickly than previously expected, as the coronavirus pandemic has drained government revenues and put additional strain on one of the nation’s most important social safety net programs. The overall finances for Medicare, however, are expected to hold steady, though the health program is still forecast to face financial pressure in the coming years.
Annual government reports released on Tuesday on the solvency of the programs underscored the questions about their long-term viability at a time when a wave of baby boomers are retiring and the economy faces ongoing uncertainty as variants of the coronavirus surge. The United States economy already faces soaring federal debt levels in the coming decades, but both Democrats and Republicans have been wary of making significant structural reforms to the popular programs.
“Having strong Social Security and Medicare programs is essential in order to ensure a secure retirement for all Americans, especially for our most vulnerable populations,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to safeguarding these programs and ensuring they continue to deliver economic security and health care to older Americans.”
Senior administration officials said that the long-term effects of the pandemic on the programs are unclear. The actuaries were forced to make assumptions about how long Covid would continue to cause unusual patterns of hospitalizations and deaths and whether it would contribute to long-term disabilities among survivors.
The Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund will now be depleted in 2033, a year earlier than previously projected, according to the report. At that time, the trust fund will run out of reserves and the program will be insolvent, with new tax revenues failing to cover scheduled payments. The report estimated that 76 percent of scheduled benefits will be able to be paid out unless Congress changes the rules to allow full payouts.
Understand the Infrastructure Bill
- One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
- The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
- Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
- Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
- Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
- Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.
The Disability Insurance Trust Fund is now expected to be depleted by 2057, which is eight years earlier than previously thought, at which time 91 percent of benefits will be paid.
Medicare’s finances are effectively holding steady. While tax revenue for the Medicare program did decline as a result of the Covid-related recession, Medicare also ended up spending less money than usual last year, as people avoided elective care.
Medicare’s hospital trust fund is projected to be unable to pay all of its bills beginning in 2026. This estimate is similar to those from Medicare’s trustees in recent years. Fixing that gap now could be achieved by increasing the Medicare payroll tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3.67 percent or by reducing Medicare spending by 16 percent each year, the report notes.
But the report highlighted that the official estimate may be unrealistically optimistic. If certain policies set to expire in the next 10 years are extended, or if other expected policy changes occur, the projections would look substantially more worrying.
Long term, the actuaries said they did not think Covid-19 itself would have substantial influence on Medicare spending on hospital care. On the one hand, the death of many vulnerable, older Americans from the virus may reduce future spending they would otherwise have received. On the other, the actuaries expect that some people may have additional health care needs from the syndrome known as long Covid.
Biden’s 2022 Budget
The 2022 fiscal year for the federal government begins on October 1, and President Biden has revealed what he’d like to spend, starting then. But any spending requires approval from both chambers of Congress. Here’s what the plan includes:
- Ambitious total spending: President Biden would like the federal government to spend $6 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year, and for total spending to rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031. That would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion through the next decade.
- Infrastructure plan: The budget outlines the president’s desired first year of investment in his American Jobs Plan, which seeks to fund improvements to roads, bridges, public transit and more with a total of $2.3 trillion over eight years.
- Families plan: The budget also addresses the other major spending proposal Biden has already rolled out, his American Families Plan, aimed at bolstering the United States’ social safety net by expanding access to education, reducing the cost of child care and supporting women in the work force.
- Mandatory programs: As usual, mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare make up a significant portion of the proposed budget. They are growing as America’s population ages.
- Discretionary spending: Funding for the individual budgets of the agencies and programs under the executive branch would reach around $1.5 trillion in 2022, a 16 percent increase from the previous budget.
- How Biden would pay for it: The president would largely fund his agenda by raising taxes on corporations and high earners, which would begin to shrink budget deficits in the 2030s. Administration officials have said tax increases would fully offset the jobs and families plans over the course of 15 years, which the budget request backs up. In the meantime, the budget deficit would remain above $1.3 trillion each year.
The actuaries declined to make any estimates on the effect of Aduhelm, a very expensive Alzheimer’s treatment that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The report said that officials were waiting for Medicare to issue guidance on how the drug will be covered before making any calculations. The drug could represent tens of billions of dollars in spending each year.
Democrats in Congress are considering a host of changes to the Medicare program, such as adding new benefits, including coverage for dental, hearing and vision care. While these changes are expected to influence Medicare’s overall finances, none of them are likely to have major effects on the trust fund, which covers only hospital care.
“Medicare trust fund solvency is an incredibly important, longstanding issue, and we are committed to working with Congress to continue building a vibrant, equitable, and sustainable Medicare program,” said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.