Urban InstituteRetirement Policy Center

Social Security


Social Security now pays out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes. The system's trustees expect this shortfall to persist for the foreseeable future unless Congress cuts benefits, raises taxes, or both. Our research examines Social Security's role in retirement income security, its impact on the federal budget, and the likely effect of proposed reforms.

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Flattening Tax Incentives for Retirement Saving (Research Report)
Barbara Butrica, Benjamin H. Harris, Pamela Perun, C. Eugene Steuerle

Under current law, a large share of tax benefits for retirement saving accrues to high-income employees. We simulate the short- and long-term effect of three policy options for flattening tax incentives and increasing retirement savings for low- and middle-income workers. Our results show that reducing 401(k) contribution limits increases taxes for high-income taxpayers; expanding the saver's credit raises saving incentives and lower taxes for low- and middle-income taxpayers; and replacing the exclusion for retirement saving contributions with a 25 percent refundable credit benefits primarily low- and middle-income taxpayers, and raises taxes and reduces retirement assets for high-income taxpayers.

Posted: June 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Executive Summary: How Will Teachers Fare in Rhode Island's New Hybrid Pension Plan? (Summary)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

Hybrid retirement plans that combine defined benefit pensions with 401(k) type, defined contribution accounts can play important roles in the reform of public-sector pensions. Summarizing results from our longer report, this brief shows that most public school teachers in Rhode Island will earn more retirement income from the state’s new hybrid plan than they would have earned in the former stand-alone defined benefit plan. However, teachers with at least 25 years of completed service, who account for only one-quarter of the total employed by the state, will fare worse in the hybrid plan.

Posted: May 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

How Will Rhode Island's New Hybrid Pension Plan Affect Teachers? (Research Report)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

In 2011 Rhode Island replaced the stand-alone defined benefit pension plan it provided to state employees with a hybrid plan that reduced the defined benefit component and added a 401(k)-type, defined contribution component. Although controversial, the new hybrid plan will boost retirement incomes for most of the state’s public school teachers. Our simulations show that two-thirds of newly hired teachers will earn more retirement benefits under the hybrid plan they would have earned under the old plan. Defined contribution plans—the dominant employer-sponsored retirement plan in the private sector—can play an important role in the reform of public-sector pensions.

Posted: May 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Adding Employer Contributions to Health Insurance to Social Security's Earnings and Tax Base (Research Report)
Karen E. Smith, Eric Toder

Including employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI) in taxable compensation would increase income and payroll tax receipts, but would also increase Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) benefits by adding ESI to the OASDI earnings base. The increased present value of OASDI benefits from including ESI in the wage base in 2014 would offset about 22 percent of increased income and payroll taxes, 57 percent of increased payroll taxes, and 72 percent of increased OASDI taxes. Both taxes and benefits as a share of income would increase between the bottom and middle quintiles and then decline for higher income taxpayers.

Posted: May 01, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

How Will State and County Government Employees Fare under Kentucky's New Cash Balance Pension Plan? (Research Report)
Richard W. Johnson, Benjamin G. Southgate

Kentucky recently replaced its traditional pension with a new cash balance plan for state and county employees hired after 2013. Employees who join the government payroll at relatively young ages and remain for no more than 25 years will accumulate more benefits in the cash balance plan than the traditional plan, while many of those with more years of service and hired at older ages will accumulate less. More than half of employees hired in 2014 who complete at least five years of service will fare better in the cash balance plan, which distributes benefits more evenly across the workforce.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

When Do State and Local Pension Plans Encourage Workers to Retire? (Research Brief)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

Traditional defined benefit pension plans that cover nearly all state and local government employees generally penalize work at older ages. In more than three-fifths of state-administered plans, employees hired at age 25 will receive lower lifetime pension benefits if they continue working after age 57 because retirement-eligible workers cannot receive benefit checks while they remain on the job. This reduction in benefits can create strong retirement incentives, which are hard to justify as the population ages and health gains and declines in physical work enable more older people to work. Well-designed public pension reforms could eliminate these work disincentives.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

How Long Must State and Local Employees Work to Accumulate Pension Benefits? (Research Brief)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

Traditional defined benefit pension plans that cover nearly all state and local government employees generally provide generous retirement benefits to long-tenured public servants but little retirement security to those with shorter tenures. Virtually every plan requires employee contributions. In half of those plans, employees must work at least 20 years before their future benefits are worth more than those contributions. Employees who separate earlier get nothing from their plan. Alternative designs like cash balance plans distribute benefits more equally across the workforce and allow employees who spend less than a full career in public service to accumulate retirement benefits.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Do State and Local Pensions Lock In Mid-Career Employees? (Research Brief)
Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, Benjamin G. Southgate

State and local pension plans often allow employees who have completed 25 or 30 years of service to collect benefits regardless of their age, instead of waiting until they reach their plan’s normal retirement age. The lifetime value of their pension surges when they qualify for early benefits. Our analysis shows that on average, half the benefits employees have accumulated by their early 50s or late 40s are earned from a single year of work. These patterns create strong incentives for mid-career workers to remain on the payroll until they realize these windfalls, including those ill-suited for their jobs.

Posted: April 30, 2014Availability: HTML | PDF

Validating Longitudinal Earnings in Dynamic Microsimulation Models: The Role of Outliers (Research Report)
Melissa M. Favreault, Owen Haaga

Rapid growth in the earnings of the highest earners over the past 25 years has contributed to strains on Social Security’s finances and made projecting lifetime earnings on a year-by-year basis-already a complicated technical problem-even more challenging. This project uses descriptive techniques and high-quality administrative data matched to household surveys to explore questions about the changing earnings distribution. We describe high earners' characteristics, both at a point in time and over longer periods (from 1983 through 2010). We then evaluate how well SSA's MINT7 model projects inequality in the earnings distribution and the long-term characteristics of earnings paths.

Posted: November 15, 2013Availability: HTML | PDF

Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits over a Lifetime (Fact Sheet / Data at a Glance)
C. Eugene Steuerle, Caleb Quakenbush

These tables update to 2013 previous estimates of the lifetime value of Social Security and Medicare benefits and taxes for typical workers in different generations at various earning levels based on new estimates of the Social Security Actuary. The "lifetime value of taxes" is based upon the value of accumulated taxes, as if those taxes were put into an account that earned a 2 percent real rate of return (that is, 2 percent plus inflation). The "lifetime value of benefits" represents the amount needed in an account (also earning a 2 percent real interest rate) to pay for those benefits. All amounts are presented in constant 2013 dollars.

Posted: November 12, 2013Availability: HTML | PDF

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