Nancy Berryhill, an Acting Commissioner of Social Security, recently testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Social Security on the widespread use of Social Security Numbers (SSNs) beyond their intended function. Most of her testimony concerned the history of SSNs, past security procedures, and proposed future ones. In a bizarre sentence that contradicts much of the rest of her testimony, Berryhill stated that, “Mandatory use of E-Verify by employers would help reduce the incidence of fraudulent use of SSNs.” That is exactly backward. Mandatory E-Verify will greatly expand the fraudulent use of SSNs.
E-Verify is an electronic employment eligibility verification system run by the federal government that is supposed to check the identity information of new hires against government databases to verify that they are legally eligible to work. Congress created E-Verify to deny employment to illegal immigrants and reduce the incentive for them to come and remain in the United States. E-Verify is not yet mandated nationwide but several states have mandated its use, to various degrees, and many large employers currently use it.
E-Verify builds on the current rudimentary employment verification known as the I-9 form that every new employee must fill out thanks to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). An E-Verify mandate would add another layer on top of the I-9 whereby employers, after collecting I-9 forms, would enter the information on them into a government website. The E-Verify system then compares that I-9 information with information held in the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases. The employee is work authorized if the databases decide that the information is valid. A flag raised by either database returns a “tentative non-confirmation,” requiring the employee and employer to sort out whatever error has been flagged. If the employee and employer cannot sort out the errors then the employer must terminate the new employee through a “final non-confirmation.” The I-9 form and E-Verify have serious problems, including the encouragement of rampant identity theft, but those problems would only grow with an E-Verify mandate.
When the government mandated that new hires prove that they are eligible to work in the United States through IRCA, they made the SSN an identifier that can prove legal work authorization. That move immediately increased the value of having an SSN, even if it was fraudulent. The result, after 1986, was a massive boom in the creation and sale of black market SSNs, identity theft, and voluntary identity loans that allow employers to obey the letter of the law when collecting I-9 forms and for illegal immigrants to continue to work. If the government mandates E-Verify then it would mandate a government computer check of the SSNs and other identity documents used to get a job that would increase the value of having a valid SSN even above what the I-9 currently promotes.
Berryhill acknowledges the above point when she testified that, “As long as the SSN remains key to accessing things of value—credit, loans, and financial accounts, and thus numerous common goods and services—the SSN itself will have commercial value, and it will continue to be targeted for misuse.” She also stated that:
While not intended, the SSN has become the personal identifier most broadly used by both government and the private sector to establish and maintain information about individuals. Before the widespread use of the SSN outside of Social Security programs (for purposes such as establishing credit), there were few incentives to obtain fraudulent SSNs or counterfeit cards. However, as the use of the SSN expanded, so too did incentives to obtain fraudulent SSNs, giving rise to concerns about the integrity of the number and card.
Berryhill does not attempt to reconcile her above statements with her support for mandatory E-Verify. Presumably, the reason Berryhill states that mandatory E-Verify will reduce fraud is that it will allow the government to check their use more frequently and identify fraudulent use. This is static thinking that ignores the dynamic real world in several ways.
First, only a bare majority of new hires are even run through E-Verify in states where the system is mandatory for all new hires. There’s little reason to think that this would improve under a nationwide mandate without heavy and consistently levied punishments. Such a low rate of E-Verify compliance significantly weakens the case that a mandate can help weed out fraudulent users.
Second, an E-Verify mandate will increase the value of fraudulently obtained SSNs beyond the extra cost that a mandate would place on the fraudsters. The net effect is almost guaranteed to be more identity theft.
Third, an E-Verify mandate would divert some of the vastly expanded identity fraud black market into identity loans that are much harder for the government to identify and stop. Retired workers, relatives, and legal immigrants who return to their home countries already sell or give their identities to illegal immigrants so they can work legally and this would expand under a nationwide E-Verify mandate. Since the legitimate identity owners do not complain about the use of their identities for employment purposes, it is much harder for the government to catch the illegal immigrants using them. This portion of the black market would just increase.
The expanded use of SSNs has made them more valuable and, thus, the object of much fraud for employment, credit, and other purposes. The lesson is not that the government should increase the value of SSNs further through an E-Verify mandate but that it should seek to decrease their value by limiting their use for employment or other activities. An E-Verify mandate would do the opposite and greatly increase the fraudulent use of SSNs.
Some conservative writers are proposing to raid Social Security for the costs of a new parental leave program. Proponents are selling it as a sort-of free lunch. The plan would be “self financing” says the IWF’s Kristin Shapiro because “new parents would agree to defer their collection of Social Security benefits upon retirement for the period of time necessary to offset the cost of their parental benefits.”
But Social Security is not a savings program with a pool of assets to draw on. If the government starts mailing checks to millions of new parents, the only “financing” would be more federal borrowing. What Shapiro calls $7 billion a year in “parental benefits” would be $7 billion more in government spending. What Shapiro calls “self financing” would be more government debt.
In theory, the government would delay retirement handouts for participating individuals three decades down to the road. But, if enacted, lobby groups and politicians would get to work undoing those future savings. And if this sort of accounting trick is used for spending on parental leave, then the flood gates would be opened for Social Security spending on home purchases, job training, and other trendy causes.
What ever happened to personal saving? Humans can look ahead and plan, and they have been doing so since the beginning of time. Personal saving is the most powerful financing tool. But the more the government hands out benefits—for retirement, health care, unemployment, parental leave, and many other things—the more it undermines the innate and responsible saving incentive. The more the nanny state spends, the more it sabotages a culture of savings and the practical ability to save as taxes rise.
Young people thinking about having children should start setting aside some of their paychecks. Young people should be taught that kids are expensive, and they should plan accordingly. Alas, personal responsibility and saving are not the starting points for most policy discussions these days.
Put aside parental leave, and think about farm programs. The government spends $20 billion a year to cushion farmers from fluctuations in prices and crop yields. It apparently never occurs to policymakers that farmers should be using their own savings to level out their consumption over time. When corn prices are high, they should be saving the extra profits. When corn prices are low, they can withdraw. Wouldn’t that be easier than writing thousands of pages of farm legislation and extracting $20 billion a year from taxpayers?
At the bottom of Shapiro’s piece, it says the IWF believes that women are “better served by greater economic freedom” than “big government.” Thus, for parental leave, the focus should be on personal responsibility and savings rather than big government spending.
Part of the solution is to cut taxes on saving and make saving simpler, as Ryan Bourne and I discuss in our study on Universal Savings Accounts (USAs). The tax code includes numerous savings vehicles for retirement, but all savings are beneficial. USAs would facilitate personal savings to cover health care, education, parental leave, and many other costs. If Americans had larger pools of savings, they would be more self-sufficient and less dependent on government.
When thinking about policy reforms, the first goal should be to increase the self-sufficiency of Americans and reduce today’s overreliance on government. USAs would not solve every problem, but they would allow Americans to better prepare for their own financial challenges.
Vanessa Brown Calder critiques the paid leave proposals here and here.
A new federal paid leave idea has been produced, promoted, and endorsed by individuals on the right. And now Republican legislators like Marco Rubio, Joni Ernst, and Mike Lee are getting behind it.
Advocates propose using Social Security as a benefit bank for paid leave – the idea is that parents could withdraw Social Security benefits today if they defer collecting benefits later. Of course, if advocates want to provide paid leave, a better idea is cutting Social Security benefits and payroll taxes so new parents don’t have to ask the government for their money back.
Still, it’s a clever idea and maybe the least-bad proposal for federal paid leave. But that does not mean the Social Security paid family leave (SS PFL) proposal is a good idea on its own merit. As described in The Hill yesterday, government-provided paid leave has harmful consequences and is not politically supported.
Setting that aside, Social Security is a program with an assortment of problems, and allowing beneficiaries to borrow against future benefits does not improve the current model. Given how integral Social Security is to the current proposal, it’s worth a reminder just how deep those issues run.
First, Social Security will shortly be insolvent. Due to Social Security’s structure and demographic trends which include an increase in life expectancy, a decrease in fertility rates, and slowing wage growth, the value of Social Security’s obligations is estimated to exceed the value of its taxes in present value by $8.6 trillion over the next 75 years. (And no, providing paid parental leave and other parental benefits won’t change fertility trends meaningfully.)
In short, there are increasingly more retirees collecting benefits for every worker paying for them. To illustrate, in 1950 there were 12 people older than 65 for every 100 people of working age. By 2050, there are expected to be 35 people older than 65 for every 100 people of working age.
This makes Social Security unsupportable in its current form. The program is already running a cashflow deficit and in trouble financially. Indeed, the Social Security Administration (SSA) projects the present-value of Social Security's unfunded financial obligation is equal to $32.1 trillion through the infinite time horizon.
How will adding SS PFL change that? AEI's Andrew Biggs says that in the long-run the SS PFL proposal is budget neutral. But in the short-run, the proposal increases Social Security’s financial obligations, thereby hastening Social Security’s decline toward insolvency. It would be one thing if Social Security was based on personal savings accounts and the proposal allowed people access to their savings more flexibly. But Social Security has no pool of savings, so the proposal means going deeper into debt to provide parental benefits.
The most generous argument is that the SS PFL proposal does everyone a favor, because it forces lawmakers to grapple with Social Security’s problems sooner than they would otherwise. What will that reform look like? If historical precedent is any indication, it will involve increasing taxes and perhaps reducing benefits.
Social Security taxes have already grown substantially over Social Security's lifetime: from a payroll tax of 2 percent at its inception in 1937 to a tax of 12.4 percent today. Indeed, during Social Security’s most recent reform in 1983, taxes were raised in a variety of ways. Recent proposals for reforming Social Security have also suggested expanding taxes to pay for the program.
Of course, benefits have also been reduced in past reforms. But with more obligations to more interest groups (parents, the sick, etc.) under a new version of the program, it will be increasingly difficult to reduce benefits because more groups will be impacted by cuts.
It seems that an underlying premise of the SS PFL proposal is that nothing major can be done to reform Social Security in the short-term anyway, so let’s enjoy the ride down. Another underlying premise is that Democrats will eventually get their way on paid leave, so let’s preempt it and give them what they want.
Unfortunately for advocates, the current proposal is not what Democrats want, and it’s unlikely they’ll be satisfied. The SS PFL proposal conveniently leaves the door wide open to provision of more generous benefits in the future.
In the meantime, Republicans will have conceded substantial ground, hastened Social Security's decline, and legitimized the provision of paid parental leave at the federal level. If history is any indication, more taxes will be part of the solution.
I sometimes feel like a broken record about entitlement programs. How many times, after all, can I point out that America is on a path to become a decrepit European-style welfare state because of a combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs?
But I can't help myself. I feel like I'm watching a surreal version of Titanic where the captain and crew know in advance that the ship will hit the iceberg,
yet they're still allowing passengers to board and still planning the same route. And in this dystopian version of the movie, the tickets actually warn the passengers that tragedy will strike, but most of them don't bother to read the fine print because they are distracted by the promise of fancy buffets and free drinks.
We now have the book version of this grim movie. It's called The 2017 Long-Term Budget Outlook and it was just released today by the Congressional Budget Office.
If you're a fiscal policy wonk, it's an exciting publication. If you're a normal human being, it's a turgid collection of depressing data.
But maybe, just maybe, the data is so depressing that both the electorate and politicians will wake up and realize something needs to change.
I've selected six charts and images from the new CBO report, all of which highlight America's grim fiscal future.
The first chart simply shows where we are right now and where we will be in 30 years if policy is left on autopilot. The most important takeaway is that the burden of government spending is going to increase significantly.
And it's also worth noting that revenues are going up, even without any additional tax increases.
The bottom part of this chart shows that revenues from the income tax will climb by about 2 percent of GDP. In other words, more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal mess is due to higher levels of government spending. So it's absurd to think the solution should involve higher taxes.
This next image digs into the details. We can see that the spending burden is rising because of Social Security and the health entitlements. By the way, the top middle column on "other noninterest spending" shows one thing that is real, which is that defense spending has fallen as a share of GDP since the mid-1960s, and one thing that may not be real, which is that politicians somehow will limit domestic discretionary spending over the next three decades.
This bottom left part of the image also gives the details on built-in growth in revenues from the income tax, further underscoring that we don't have a problem of inadequate revenue.
Last but not least, here's a graphic that shows the amount of fiscal policy changes that would be needed to either reduce or stabilize government debt.
I think that's the wrong goal, and that instead the focus should be on reducing or stabilizing the burden of government spending,
but I'm sharing this chart because it shows that spending would have to be lowered by 3.1 percent of GDP to put the nation on a good fiscal path.
Some folks think that might be impossible, but I'll simply point out that the five-year de facto spending freeze that we achieved from 2009-2014 actually reduced the burden of government spending by a greater amount. In other words, the payoff from genuine spending restraint is enormous.
The bottom line is very simple.
We need to invoke my Golden Rule so that government grows slower than the private sector. In the long run, that will require genuine entitlement reform.
Or we can let America become Greece.
In a speech this week, President Obama called for an expansion of Social Security, saying “it’s time we finally made Social Security more generous, and increased its benefits.” Obama was undoubtedly influenced to some degree by the developments in the Democratic primary, where both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have expressed support for some form of expansion. This represents a reversal in part for Obama. While he had always supported increasing payroll taxes on higher-earning Americans, he had also previously supported a change in the way benefits were adjusted each year that would have reduced the growth rate of benefits over a long timeframe in the interest of improving the program’s fiscal trajectory. Social Security’s long-term oultook has only gotten worse in the intervening years, but in his speech he signalled that he no longer believed “all options were on the table” to address solvency concerns and instead supports further expansion. This reversal is misguided. If his favored reforms are implemented it will increase the economic distortions introduced by Social Security and do nothing to address its serious fiscal problems. The more likely result is that with this retrenchment, policymakers will continue to make promises but fail to actually do anything. Younger workers will bear the brunt of the cost resulting from failures to put forward constructive reform.
Inexorable demographic changes and the program’s structure mean that today’s younger workers were already going to get a worse deal from Social Security than previous generations. As work from C. Eugene Steuerle and Caleb Quakenbush has shown, a married-couple both earning the average wage retiring in 1960 received more than seven dollars in benefits for each dollar it paid in taxes over their lifetime. A similar couple reaching age 65 in 1980 received roughly $2.60in benefits for each dollar contributed, and a couple retiring in 2030 will receive about $1.12 for each dollar paid into the program. As they note, this ratio probably overstates how good a deal future retirees will get as it does not incorporate the reforms needed to pay scheduled benefits, so that couple that is currently in their 50s could end up having to pay more in taxes or taking a substantial benefit cut.
Present Value Lifetime Benefits and Taxes in Social Security, Married Couple at Average Wage
Source: Steuerle and Quakenbush (2015)
Given that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are likely to make any substantive reforms to improve the program’s fiscal trajectory, she has expressed support for some form of expansion and he has promised to protect old-age entitlements from any kind of cuts, it is likely policymakers will continue to kick that can further down the road and closer to the trust fund exhaustion date in 2034. The longer these reforms are delayed, the larger the required reforms become. In order to make the program solvent through the 75-year projection period, scheduled benefits would have to be cut by 16.4 percent for all current and future beneficiaries. If policymakers delay until 2034, scheduled benefits would have to be by 21 percent, with these reductions increasing in later decades.
Changes Needed to Reach 75-Year Solvency
Source: Social Security Administration, The 2015 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, July 2015, p. 25.
Recent experience has shown that even would-be reformers have expressed a reluctance to make any changes that would affect current retirees, and if this continues it would make addressing the program’s significant unfunded obligations more difficult. Even completely eliminating benefits for those newly eligible in 2034 would not be enough to enable the program to pay out all scheduled benefits in that year. Perhaps it is not surprising that almost two-thirds of people 18 to 29 think Social Security will be unable to pay them benefits when they retire.
President Obama’s reversal is misguided, and will make it harder to enact Social Security reforms that would actually begin to address the program’s issues. Younger workers will bear the burden of policymakers’ reticence to put forward constructive reforms, and they have shown that they are skeptical of Social Security promises made by politicians.
In the Republican debate last night, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas criticized calls for Social Security reform, saying “people paid their money. They expect to have it,” and that the country needs to honor its promises to seniors. There are problems with this line of argument: the Social Security payroll taxes a person pays are not tied to the benefits they receive in a legal sense, and the ‘promises’ made by Social Security are, and always have been, subject to change.
Congress has had the authority to alter Social Security since its inception. Section 1104 of The Social Security Act of 1935 explicitly says: "The right to alter, amend, or repeal any provision of this Act is hereby reserved to the Congress."
Not only does Congress have the right to make changes, it has done so multiple times in the past. Sometimes these changes are smaller things, like a technical correction to the indexation formula, but there were also larger reforms that were part of attempts to address the programs solvency issues.
The Supreme Court revisited the issue of Social Security’s promises in Flemming v. Nestor, in which Nestor, who had paid into Social Security for 19 years and begun to receive benefits, was then deported for previous ties to the Communist Party. Nestor tried to appeal the termination of his benefits, citing his previous contributions, but the Supreme Court upheld it, saying:
To engraft upon the Social Security system a concept of ‘accrued property rights’ would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to ever changing conditions which it demands… It is apparent that the non-contractual interest of an employee covered by the [Social Security] Act cannot be soundly analogized to that of the holder of an annuity, whose right to benefits is bottomed on his contractual premium payments.
The other aspect Huckabee touches on is the link between the taxes paid in and the benefits a person ultimately receives, implying that a worker’s contributions are kept in some kind of silo to be paid out to them at a later date. As another Supreme Court case found, this is not true.
In Helvering v. Davis (1937)the Court held that Social Security was not a contributory insurance program in the sense that “[t]he proceeds of both the employee and employer taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way.” Despite how Huckabee and his fellow defenders of the status quo describe the program, the payroll tax payments a person pays into Social Security have no direct link to the benefits that they receive in a legal sense: they are subject to future changes made by Congress and dependent on the program having sufficient revenue.
Huckabee doesn’t need to familiarize himself with these decades-old Supreme Court cases or the Social Security Act to be able to understand the problems with his invocation of the program’s ‘promises’. Anyone, including Huckabee, can see this for themselves in the Social Security Statement that the Social Security Administration periodically sends to workers:
Your estimated benefits are based on current law. Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time.
The ‘promises’ with Social Security always came with an asterisk, and beneficiaries are not entitled to a certain amount because they have contributed payroll taxes. In the past the law has been altered to change the deal facing beneficiaries, and there will undoubtedly have to be more changes in the future if Social Security is to remain viable. If we maintain the status quo and do nothing, benefits will have to cut by 23 percent across the board when the combined trust fund is exhausted in 2034. There can be disagreements about the best way to reform Social Security, but when it is facing trillions in unfunded obligations and the certainty of drastic cuts in the future absent reform, doing nothing is not a feasible option.
A recent report from the Social Security Advisory Board’s Technical Panel found that the 75-year shortfall could be 28 percent (roughly $2.6 trillion) larger than the estimate in this year’s Trustees Report due to changes in some of the underlying technical assumptions. This disparity is more the product of the difficulties related to projecting the trajectory of a program as large and complicated as Social Security so far into the future, with the chair of the Technical Panel taking pains to reiterate that “the methods and assumptions used by the Social Security actuaries and Trustees are reasonable.” Even so, the report reveals the uncertainty related to the long-term projections for Social Security, with relatively small changes to some of the underlying assumptions significantly changing the program’s financial solvency outlook. Social Security is the largest government program in the world, and changes in its fiscal outlook could have a large impact on the government’s overall finances.
The changes in the Technical Panel report that would have the largest impact are concentrated in a few variables:
- Higher fertility rate
- Higher life expectancy
- Higher interest rates
Other changes to inflation and real earnings growth rate assumptions have a small negative impact, while changes to immigration assumptions slightly improve the program’s financial picture. Some of the changes reflect developments that are good overall but have a negative impact on Social Security’s finances, like higher life expectancy.
Some of the panel’s recommendations focus on making the methodology of the Trustees’ Report more transparent and the degree of uncertainty more clear. While it’s possible that unforeseen changes to underlying variables like the fertility rate could improve the program’s financial outlook, it is much more likely that the trillions in unfunded obligations published in the Annual Trustees’ Report understate the shortfall, if anything.
To some extent we don’t know what Social Security’s long-run shortfall is, but we do know that there will have to be significant reforms to make the program solvent, and the longer these changes are delayed the bigger they’ll need to be. Whether it is raising payroll tax rates or cutting benefits, delaying reform only makes the needed changes more severe.
Percent Change Needed for 75-Year Solvency
Source: Social Security Administration, The 2015 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, July 2015, p. 25.
One of the goals Social Security is to remove some degree of uncertainty related to life in old age, but this new report confirms that a high degree of uncertainty remains, both for the program’s overall solvency and for individual workers. Younger workers already get a worse deal than previous generations due to demographic change and the program’s structure. Even more troubling, they can’t know how much worse their deal will become as benefits are cut or taxes are increased in the future to try to address this shortfall.
One option that could remedy some of these inherent problems would be to allow workers, especially young workers, to divert some of their payroll taxes to individual accounts. Cato has explored this issue in the past. Chile, for example, has an elderly extreme poverty rate of 1.6 percent, and pension funds have seen a real annual return of 8.6 percent from 1981 to 2013. The United States should heed some of these lessons. Other countries, especially those in South America, have successfully introduced reforms along these lines.