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Payroll tax cut could mean Social Security benefits run out sooner

David Brancaccio, Chris Farrell, and Erika Soderstrom Aug 26, 2020
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William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
COVID-19

Payroll tax cut could mean Social Security benefits run out sooner

David Brancaccio, Chris Farrell, and Erika Soderstrom Aug 26, 2020
Heard on:
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

President Donald Trump recently issued an executive action that temporarily suspended payroll taxes for employees earning $100,000 and less. The legality and practicality of his executive memorandum is in dispute, and it hasn’t been popular on Capitol Hill.

The bigger worry among many economists is that any move toward lowering payroll taxes during a pandemic recession will put additional financial pressure on Social Security.

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke about that with Marketplace senior economics contributor Chris Farrell. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Clearly Trump did want to cut the payroll tax, at least for a short period of time this fall.

Chris Farrell: Well, he’s been consistent about that. But here’s the crux of the worry, this is what economists are really afraid of: Cutting payroll taxes could move up that long-anticipated date of the Social Security trust fund depletion by several years.

Brancaccio: But that doesn’t mean Social Security suddenly goes bankrupt and stops paying at that moment.

Farrell: Yeah, but here’s what it means: The depletion date, which was projected by the Social Security’s trustees before the pandemic, they put it at 2035. And that marks the year when payroll tax revenue will only cover 79% of promised benefits. So, now we have this high unemployment with the pandemic recession, fewer people are paying their payroll taxes, the high business failure rate, particularly among small businesses, less money going into Social Security. So when you take this pandemic recession, if you combine that with a payroll tax cut, well, the date of the Social Security fiscal crisis could be moved up earlier.

Brancaccio: By how much, though, you think?

Farrell: OK, so there’s a range of estimates. But the Bipartisan Policy Center, it uses the Great Recession of a dozen years ago as its baseline. So if the current downturn mirrors the Great Recession, Social Security’s depletion date would move up by six years, to 2029. Alicia Munnell — she’s director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College — she calculates that if the recession causes payroll taxes to drop by 20%, for two years, the depletion date would move up by two years. So if you add in payroll tax cuts to the pandemic recession, it’s not good news for Social Security.

Brancaccio: And it’s also impossible to predict just how deep this pandemic recession is going to be, which will play out in these figures, right?

Farrell: Exactly. I mean, these are projections. But here’s what I take away from this: Reducing payroll taxes at this time is only going to undermine Social Security finances, and too many older Americans rely on their Social Security benefits to pay the bills.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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