Social Security’s Budget Crisis Begins Next Year

11 million Americans receiving Social Security disability insurance could face painful benefit cuts as early as 2016.

This week marks the 80th anniversary of Social Security, a good time to remember the program’s many successes and achievements over the past eight decades. For nearly 11 million Americans with injuries or disabilities and their families, however, it may also be a reminder of an impending crisis that Congress must confront.

Unless lawmakers act by the end of next year, Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund will run dry, forcing a 19 percent reduction in benefits for all beneficiaries if the program continues without an additional source of revenues. The pain would be immediate and immense, especially considering that the average disability benefit is only about $14,000 a year. Imagine the difficulty of paying for groceries, housing and other needs while suffering a 19 percent reduction in income. It’s easy to see why lawmakers agree that the DI shortfall must be averted. How to avoid the crisis, however, remains an area of significant contention.

For some elected officials, the solution is to transfer the needed money from Social Security’s other major trust fund – the Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund. Advocates for this approach often call it a “routine” way to bring the DI Trust Fund into balance, but they ignore the fact that OASI itself has serious problems. The last time that Congress drew from OASI to fund DI in 1994, the Baby Boom generation had yet to start retiring or collecting disability benefits in large numbers; today, thousands are retiring daily and claiming benefits, putting enormous strain on both programs. Because lawmakers have ignored past warnings and allowed a crisis to develop, some “reallocation” of OASI funds into DI will likely be necessary come next year. However, this should be considered within the context of a larger discussion on how to bring the revenues and outlays of Social Security into balance.

The latest projections of the Social Security trustees suggest that the OASI fund will run dry in the mid-2030s; without congressional action, this would result in major across-the-board benefit cuts. That’s why lawmakers should take the opportunity now to look at broader Social Security reforms that will strengthen both DI and OASI for the long haul. It’s right for our future – ask any roomful of young Americans if they expect to receive Social Security benefits one day, and you’ll likely hear a resounding “No” – and it’s right for the seniors who are claiming benefits today.

Of course, reforms to either DI or OASI will be politically difficult. A number of the potential solutions discussed in the past – raising the cap on payroll taxes, reducing benefits for wealthier individuals, increasing the payroll tax rate, and raising the retirement or early retirement ages – are deeply opposed by major special interest groups or many individual Americans. But we should all recognize that Social Security faces a simple math problem: the benefits it has promised exceed the revenues that are currently available to pay for them. By summoning the political will to make small changes today, lawmakers can avoid larger and more difficult ones tomorrow.

It’s worth it. Eighty years after its inception, Social Security continues to be a major component of Americans’ retirement planning, and Disability Insurance serves as a lifeline for those who struggle with injuries or disabilities. As the son of a mother with cerebral palsy and of a father with multiple sclerosis, I understand the value of these benefits quite personally.

That’s why we need to make the tough choices now to present stability and certainty for those who rely on Social Security today as well as those who will do so many years – perhaps even another 80 years – into the future.

Phil LaRue

Phil LaRue is the Director of Government Relations for the Concord Coalition, a nationwide, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to educating the public on long-term federal budget issues.