What Is Social Security?

On Aug. 14, 1935, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act. Originally implemented to assist older Americans by paying them a continuing income upon their retirement, the program was later amended to extend benefits to the spouse and minor children of retired workers, workers who become disabled, families in which a spouse or parent dies, and, more recently, health coverage.

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security benefits are funded by a dedicated payroll tax.
  • It is a pay-as-you-go system, with the taxes paid today funding the benefits being paid out.
  • As baby boomers retire, they will swell the ranks of those receiving benefits, while those paying taxes will become a smaller percentage of the population, ultimately possibly preventing those benefits from being fully funded.

Understanding Social Security

The Social Security program is funded through the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax, a dedicated payroll tax. You and your employer each pay 6.2% of your wages, up to the taxable maximum of $132,900 as of 2019. If you are self-employed, you pay the entire 12.4%; however, you can deduct half of the self-employment tax as a business expense. Under the law, Social Security is financed by this designated tax, and any surplus money that isn’t paid out in benefits is used to buy U.S. government bonds held in the Social Security Trust Fund.

The money that you pay through taxes is not the same money that you will receive later in life. Instead, Social Security is primarily a pay-as-you-go system, where the money you and your employer contribute now is used to fund payments to people who currently receive benefits, including those who have retired or are disabled, survivors of workers who have died, dependents, and other Social Security beneficiaries.


The year in which the Social Security Administration estimates that it will go bankrupt unless changes are made to how the system is funded

The Problem With Social Security

So what’s the problem? Basically, demographics.

Americans are having fewer children and living longer, both of which contribute to an aging population. Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are retiring at a record pace: As of 2018, 16% of the population is age 65 (the earliest retirement age at which you can collect full benefits) and over, and by 2060 it is estimated that it will rise to 23%. At the same time, the working-age population will be getting smaller, from about 62% today to 57% in 2060.

These trends result in declining worker-to-beneficiary ratios. As we move forward, there will be fewer people putting money into the Social Security system and more people taking money out. Because of these factors, the Social Security Administration estimates that all the money in the Social Security “bank account” will be exhausted in 2037, when it will have only about 76% of what it should pay out that year. That means that without any changes to the system if you’re in your 40s or 50s today, you could conceivably not receive Social Security benefits during retirement, even though you’re paying into the system now.

Full retirement age rises to 67 as of 2026.

Possible Solutions

Fortunately, that’s a worst-case scenario. Social Security is nowhere near bankruptcy, and it has nearly two decades to act before funds are completely depleted. Increased taxes, benefit cuts, and upping the age at which people can start collecting benefits (66 in 2020 but rising to 67 by 2026) are all changes that, alone or in concert, could be implemented to make up any future shortfalls.