Personal Finance

A permanent payroll tax cut could deplete Social Security trust funds by 2023

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this month that would give workers a temporary break from paying payroll taxes.
  • Many worry that a tax holiday could become permanent and that would hurt Social Security, which relies on those levies for its funding.
  • Now, one estimate from the Social Security Administration finds that if a permanent change were put in place, it could deplete the program's funds by mid-2023. 
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President Donald Trump has put a temporary payroll tax holiday in place in his latest bid to help shore up an American economy crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

While that means some workers will take home bigger checks, others worry that such a change could deplete funding for Social Security, which relies on those taxes.

Now, a letter sent this week by Social Security Chief Actuary Stephen Goss estimates that if a permanent payroll tax cut were put in place, it could deplete the program's funding by mid-2023. That's based on the change taking effect for earnings starting on Jan. 1, 2021.

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The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund would permanently run out at that time, at which point no benefits would be payable, according to Goss' estimates. That trust fund is used to pay benefits to retired workers and their spouses and children, as well as survivors of deceased workers.

Meanwhile, the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund would run out of funding two years earlier, in mid-2021. At that point, it would also have no money to pay benefits, Goss wrote. That trust fund is used to pay disabled workers who qualify for benefits, as well as their spouses and children.

The estimate is based on possible legislation, not any specific proposal. Goss sent the letter to Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who had requested the analysis.

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If I get re-elected, I will be terminating the payroll tax: Trump

Payroll taxes are used to provide funding to Social Security and Medicare. Currently, employees pay 6.2% for Social Security on income up to $137,700 as of 2020. They also pay an additional 1.45% toward Medicare.

Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 8 to give Americans who earn less than $100,000 a temporary break from paying payroll taxes. But those taxes will have to be paid back next year.

"If I'm victorious on Nov. 3, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax," Trump said at the time.

Trump's comments were interpreted to mean either that he planned to make it so those funds did not have to be paid back, or that he planned to permanently eliminate the payroll tax.

After receiving Goss' letter, Van Hollen issued a statement rejecting the prospect of a permanent payroll tax cut, saying it would "completely decimate Social Security."

"This analysis makes clear – this is another thinly veiled attempt to gut Social Security and go after the American people's hard-earned benefits," Van Hollen said. "We can't let Trump get away with this and will do everything in our power to prevent this disastrous policy from ever going into effect."

Social Security advocates have been quick to shut down the prospect of getting rid of the tax altogether.

"If Donald Trump is re-elected, Social Security will cease to exist before the end of his second term," Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, said in a statement in reaction to the Goss letter.

However, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow dismissed those concerns in a Tuesday interview.

"There is no plan to eliminate Social Security taxes," Kudlow said. "I don't know where that idea came from. It's not true."

In a statement, Trump's re-election campaign said the fears are unfounded.

"The president has clearly stated repeatedly that he will always protect Social Security and Medicare, including from Democrats pushing plans to give benefits to illegal aliens," said Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump's re-election campaign.

But Social Security advocates are not happy with the recent payroll tax changes.

Even a temporary payroll tax holiday goes against the nature of the program, said Dan Adcock, director of government relations and policy at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

General revenue could be used as funding in the short term. However, Social Security is based on workers contributing directly to the program, and thereby earning the benefits they receive, Adcock said.

"They're not a handout. They're not an entitlement," Adcock said. "That's why even under those circumstances we are so strongly opposed to this."