The Social Security Trust Fund Will Reach Zero in 2035

The Social Security Trustees announced today that they expect the Social Security trust fund to reach exhaustion in 2035, a year better than they predicted last year. Here are their predictions for every year since the program was overhauled in 1984:

As you can see, everyone was pretty optimistic after the 1984 reform, but reality set in quickly and then a recession in 1991 made things even worse. By the mid-90s, the trustees were predicting trust fund exhaustion by 2030.

But then we had the dotcom boom followed by the housing boom and predictions got rosier. But then we had the Great Recession and predictions once again got gloomier. Finally, we split the difference during the long, modest expansion of the Obama years. That brings us to the present, and at this point it looks like the trust fund really will run out of money around 2033-35

So what happens then? One of two things. If Congress does nothing, everyone’s Social Security check suddenly gets cut by 25 percent. But if Congress decides to fix things—which seems likely given the political suicide of impoverishing millions of seniors—then taxes go up and Social Security payments stay about the same as scheduled. If we do this now, the tax increase could be done slowly over time. If we wait until 2035, it will probably have to happen pretty quickly. Realistically, those are our only choices.

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