A flurry of commentary greeted the unsurprising news last week that Social Security is paying out more than it is taking in. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Social Security cash deficit for 2010 was $37 billion and will rise to $45 billion this year. The one-year payroll tax holiday enacted in December would actually leave the 2011 deficit much larger ($130 billion), but general revenues will be credited to Social Security to make up for the loss of payroll tax income.
Looking ahead, CBO now projects that Social Security will run perpetual cash deficits, amounting to $547 billion through 2021. By that year, CBO projects that Social Security outlays will exceed cash income by $118 billion.
Viewed as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP), Social Security’s cost will grow from 4.8 percent this year to 5.3 percent in 2021.
Running a cash deficit does not mean that full benefits cannot be paid. When there is a shortfall in cash income, Social Security can draw on its trust fund balance to continue issuing checks. Currently, the trust fund has a balance of $2.7 trillion and is projected to remain “solvent” until 2037. But this method of “financing” only serves to demonstrate why the government’s largest program will become a growing budgetary challenge.
The trust funds...