Are the Social Security trust funds real?
Social Security trust funds are real and hold real Treasury securities for which the federal government has an obligation to pay. They reflect any accumulated excess of Social Security taxes plus other revenues, such as interest received, over expenditures. At the same time, the trust funds “fund” only a tiny portion of outstanding obligations. The trust funds are invested in special-issue Treasury securities backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government.
Social Security was designed primarily as a “pay-as-you-go” system. Instead of prefunded accounts for individuals, benefits are paid mainly out of contributions from current workers. For the most part, money going into the system immediately goes out to pay for benefits.
When Social Security’s receipts from payroll taxes and other sources exceed program costs, as it has while the large baby boom generation dominated the workforce, excess funds have been used to purchase special-issue U.S. Treasury bonds that bear interest. In effect, the Social Security trust fund lends the money to the general fund.
Where does the money go? When the non–Social Security part of government is running deficits, the money funds all other government activities. When the trust funds themselves run deficits, they add to these other non–Social Security deficits to produce an even larger unified fund deficit. Because these special-issue bonds are essentially both sold and held by the government, aren’t publicly traded like other financial assets, and represent IOUs from the government, some people believe that the trust funds are nothing more than an accounting fiction.
Another factor further confuses the issue. Because the trust funds represent an asset to one side of government (the Social Security Administration) and a liability to another side of government (the general fund), some accounting presentations make the overall effect of the trust funds on the budget look “neutral,” when in fact there are future obligations to be paid.
So are the trust funds real? Yes. They have legal consequences for the Treasury and are backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government, just like any other Treasury bond. If and when the Social Security Administration redeems the bonds, the government has a legal obligation to pay the money back with interest, with no additional appropriation by Congress required.
To be clear, the trust funds are not a free lunch for taxpayers. Money from the general fund used to repay debts to the trust funds cannot be used for other purposes, like building roads or providing for national defense. And as an additional outlay for the government, those general fund payments increase the Treasury’s need to borrow from the public, increasing federal deficits and adding burdens on future taxpayers.
For all the heat about whether the trust funds exist, the debate misses a larger issue: the long-term fiscal challenges posed by Social Security and Medicare are not due to inadequate trust funds, which will be depleted after only a few years of draw-down, but to decades-long imbalances between promised benefits and the revenues required to fund those benefits.
Social Security Administration. 2016. 2016 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds. Washington, DC: Social Security Administration.
Steuerle, C. Eugene. 2011. “The Pointless Debate over the Social Security Trust Fund.” The Government We Deserve (blog). March 24. Accessed October 2, 2015.
Steuerle, C. Eugene, and Caleb Quakenbush. 2015. “Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits over a Lifetime: 2015 Update.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
Steuerle, C. Eugene, and Stephanie Rennane. 2011. “How Lifetime Benefits and Contributions Point the Way Toward Reforming Our Senior Entitlement Programs.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.