The government has been robbing the Social Security Trust! Most of us have heard this version of Social Security history. Is it true? Myth is a more correct answer.
Social Security’s history includes details of social movements taking place long before the Act became law in the 1930’s. The movements focused on providing some level of income security for individuals who aged out of the workforce.
Two decisions – both made at the time the bill was written – explain part of how the Social Security Trust Fund was diminished:
- Benefits were earned when a worker had made three years of contributions prior to reaching the age of 65. BUT – to be fair to workers who would not be able to make three full years of contributions prior to their 65th birthday, the legislation granted them annual payments as well. In the period 1937 to 1939, this annual payment resulted in a payout of $25,562,000. The actual amount paid out is larger as the payments would have continued until death.
- Social Security was also set up as a “pay as you go” program. What came into the fund was paid out. Ida Mae Fuller is the first person to apply for and receive a monthly benefit. She contributed a total of $24.75 in the three years prior to reaching her 65th birthday. Her first benefit check was $22.54. Because she lived many years past age 65, Ms. Fuller’s $24.75 investment yielded a total retirement benefit of $22,888.92. Part of her payment would have come from new contributions and part from income earned from the excess deposits.
Social Security never achieved the trust fund it needed to give it stability. Benefits paid to American retirees in the early days of the program were far in excess of the contributions. Legislative changes expanding benefits and building in cost of living adjustments have continued to keep the fund from building a sufficient cash reserve that would generate earnings to sustain long term benefits.