Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine suggested in the debate last week that a Clinton administration would address Social Security’s unsustainable fiscal trajectory by “focusing primarily on the payroll tax cap,” increasing it substantially from its current ceiling of $118,500. Proposals along these lines portray raising the tax cap as a way to address the rapidly deteriorating fiscal health of the program by enacting a modest tweak that would simply return the program to the way it has always operated, and that this additional tax burden would fall solely on high-earners. However, the current cap is not significantly out of line with the program’s historical experience, and the U.S. has a relatively high taxable maximum compared to many peers. These factors, along with the resulting adverse economic consequences and the need for further increases in the future, illustrate why the focus on this aspect of reform is misplaced.
It’s certainly true that at some points in the program’s history, a significant portion of workers had earnings above the tax cap, but this was in the earlier years of the its operation when more than a quarter of workers were above it. Over the past 30 years this share of workers has fluctuated in a narrow band around 6 percent.
Looking at it another way, the percentage of total earnings that are subject to the tax was 82.7 percent in 2014. While this is slightly below the high point in the early 1980s, it is just below the average since 1950.
Percent of Total Earnings Subject to Tax
Source: Social Security Administration.