[Excerpt] Each year when the Social Security trustees release their annual report, attention is focused on the projection of the year that the Social Security trust funds will become insolvent. In their 2014 report, the Trustees projected that, under their intermediate assumptions and under current law, the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund will become exhausted in 2016 and the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund will do so in 2034. Although the two funds are legally separate, they are often described in combination. The trustees project that the combined Social Security trust funds will become exhausted in 2033.
Some Americans may believe that if the trust funds were exhausted, Social Security would be unable to pay any benefits. In fact, in 2033, the first year of projected insolvency of the combined Social Security trust funds, the program is projected to have enough tax revenue to pay about 77% of scheduled benefits; that percentage would decline to 72% by the end of the 75-year projection period.
Although benefits would be paid in some form, it is unclear how the necessary reductions would be implemented, because the Social Security Act does not specify what would happen to benefits if a trust fund became exhausted. One option would be to pay full benefit checks on a delayed schedule; another would be to make timely but reduced payments.
This report explains what the Social Security trust funds are and how they work. It describes the historical operations of the trust funds and the Social Security trustees’ projections of future operations. It explains what could happen if Congress allowed the trust funds to run out. It also analyzes two scenarios that assume Congress waits until the moment of insolvency to act, showing the magnitude of benefit cuts or tax increases needed and how such changes would affect beneficiaries.