Social Security fund will be drained by 2037

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WASHINGTON — Social Security’s finances are getting worse as the economy struggles to recover and millions of baby boomers stand at the brink of retirement.

New congressional projections show Social Security running deficits every year until its trust funds are eventually drained in about 2037.

This year alone, Social Security is projected to collect $45 billion less in payroll taxes than it pays out in retirement, disability and survivor benefits, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday. That figure swells to $130 billion when a new one-year cut in payroll taxes is included, though Congress has promised to repay any lost revenue from the tax cut.

The massive retirement program has been feeling the effects of a struggling economy for several years. The program first went into deficit last year — the first deficit since it was last overhauled in the 1980s. But CBO said last year that Social Security would post surpluses for a few more years before permanently slipping into deficits in 2016.

The outlook, however, has grown bleaker as the nation struggles to recover from its worst economic crisis since Social Security was enacted during the Great Depression. In the short term, Social Security is suffering from a weak economy that has payroll taxes lagging and applications for benefits rising. In the long term, Social Security will be strained by the growing number of baby boomers retiring and applying for benefits.

The deficits add a sense of urgency to efforts to improve Social Security’s finances. For much of the past 30 years, Social Security has run big surpluses, which the government has borrowed to spend on other programs. Now that Social Security is running deficits, the federal government will have to find money elsewhere to help pay for retirement, disability and survivor benefits.

“It means that Social Security is increasingly adding to our long-term fiscal problem, and it’s happening now,” said Eugene Steuerle, a former Treasury official who is now a fellow at the Urban Institute think tank.

It’s a bad time for the nation to be hit with more financial problems. The federal budget deficit will surge to a record $1.5 trillion flood of red ink this year, congressional budget experts estimated Wednesday, blaming the slow economic recovery and a tax cut law enacted in December.

Lawmakers from both parties have vowed to address the nation’s financial problems, including such contentious issues as Social Security and Medicare. The political climate, however, has made it difficult. Some Democrats have criticized plans to cut Social Security benefits as secret plots to destroy the program. Many Republicans have refused to consider tax increases.

“We need to get past the politics of the past and deal with this issue, making the hard decisions that have to be made,” Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said Thursday at a Senate hearing on the budget deficit. “As we move forward in that context, I personally believe strongly that all aspects of the spending and revenue side of the equation must be on the table.”

He also called on President Barack Obama to become engaged in the issue.

A debt commission appointed by Obama has recommended a series of changes to improve Social Security’s finances, including a gradual increase in the full retirement age, lower cost-of-living increases and a gradual increase in the threshold on the amount of income subject to the Social Security payroll tax.

Obama, however, has not embraced any of the panel’s recommendations. Instead, in his State of the Union speech this week, he called for unspecified bipartisan solutions to strengthen the program while protecting current retirees, future retirees and people with disabilities.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he is ready to work with Obama on Social Security and other tough issues.

“I take the president at his word when he says he’s eager to cooperate with us on doing all of it,” McConnell said.

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