Wednesday, April 01, 2009
By Lori Montgomery
The Washington Post
The U.S. recession is wreaking havoc on yet another front: the Social Security trust fund.
With unemployment rising, the payroll tax revenue that finances Social Security benefits for nearly 51 million retirees and other recipients is falling, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office. As a result, the trust fund's annual surplus is forecast to all but vanish next year -- nearly a decade ahead of schedule -- and deprive the government of billions of dollars it had been counting on to help balance the nation's books.
While the new numbers will not affect payments to current Social Security recipients, experts say, the disappearing surplus could have considerable implications for the government's already grim financial situation.
The Treasury Department has for decades borrowed money from the Social Security trust fund to finance government operations. If it is no longer able to do so, it could be forced to borrow an additional $700 billion over the next decade from China, Japan and other investors. And at some point, perhaps as early as 2017, according to the CBO, the Treasury would have to start repaying the billions it has borrowed from the trust fund over the past 25 years, driving the nation further into debt or forcing Congress to raise taxes.
The new forecast is fueling calls for reform of the Social Security system from conservative analysts, who say it underscores the financial fragility of a system that provides a primary source of income for millions of Americans.
"It suggests we better get working on Social Security and stop burying our heads in the sand," said Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. "The Social Security trust fund, though technically in balance, is going to put huge pressures on taxpayers very soon."
Many liberal analysts reject the notion that Social Security needs fixing, arguing that the system is projected to fully support payments to beneficiaries through 2041 -- so long as the Treasury repays its debts. But they agree that the news is not good for the federal budget.
"This is not a problem for Social Security, it's a problem for fiscal responsibility," said Christian Waller, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He said the new estimates would force President Obama and his budget director, Peter Orszag, "to stay on track in what they have set out to do, and that is rein in deficits."...(Click for remainder).