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Social Security experts say news of permanent deficits should be a wake-up call for action.

“So long as Social Security was running surpluses, policymakers could put off the need to fix the program,” said Andrew Biggs, a former deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Now that the system is running deficits, it simply becomes clear that we need to act on Social Security reform.”

More than 54 million people receive retirement, disability or survivor benefits from Social Security. Monthly payments average $1,076.

The program has been supported by a 6.2 percent payroll tax paid by both workers and employers. In December, Congress passed a one-year tax cut for workers, to 4.2 percent. The lost revenue is to be repaid to Social Security from general revenue funds, meaning it will add to the growing national debt.

Social Security has built up a $2.5 trillion surplus since the retirement program was last overhauled in the 1980s. Benefits will be safe until that money runs out. That is projected to happen in 2037 — unless Congress acts in the meantime. At that point, Social Security would collect enough in payroll taxes to pay out about 78 percent of benefits, according to the Social Security Administration.

The $2.5 trillion surplus, however, has been borrowed over the years by the federal government and spent on other programs. In return, the Treasury Department has issued bonds to Social Security, guaranteeing repayment with interest.

Social Security supporters are adamant that the program will be repaid, just as the U.S. government repays others who invest in U.S. Treasury bonds.

“It’s an IOU that is backed by Treasury bonds and the faith and credit of the United States government,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “It is the same faith and credit that enables us to borrow from rich people and from China and from other countries. As you well know, in the history of this country, the United States has never defaulted on one penny owed to a creditor.”