Abstract: The Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act could be considered an excellent piece of legislation--if, that is, the goal of the legislation was to ensure massive Social Security deficits without creating a single new job. Yet another attempt by the federal government to coerce companies into hiring more workers, the HIRE Act also signals two fundamental and likely permanent shifts to the Social Security system: a move away from a system where benefits are paid for entirely by worker contributions to a system where benefits are paid by a transfer from general revenue; and backdoor increases in taxes as a consequence of partial or full general fund financing. Rather than hobbling America's economic recovery with an ineffective payroll tax holiday like the HIRE Act, Congress should encourage productive and sustainable job creation--policies capable of generating real growth in the U.S. economy.
Little more than a payroll tax holiday for employers, the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act is yet another attempt by the federal government to coerce companies into hiring more workers.
The total cost of the payroll tax holiday plan in the HIRE Act would contribute to the massive and growing Social Security deficits and would likely create no new jobs on net. Additionally, this proposal signals two fundamental and likely permanent shifts to the Social Security system:
- A move away from a system where benefits are paid for entirely by worker contributions to a system where benefits are paid by a transfer from general revenue; and
- Backdoor increases in taxes as a consequence of partial or full general fund financing.
Instead of pursuing ineffective measures such as payroll tax holidays, federal legislation should focus on:
- Permanently extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts;
- Repealing mandates and regulations that add to the high cost of running a business;
- Reducing crippling taxes--including those taxes applied to earnings from abroad--and mandates faced by businesses; and
- Rethinking any federal "stimulus" legislation that will further increase deficits in the Social Security system--especially if the financing involves deficit spending from general revenues.
The Payroll Tax Holiday
Section 101 of the HIRE Act outlines a temporary suspension on the employer share of the SocialSecurity Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Fund payroll tax for any qualified employer hiring a qualified individual during a period of eligibility. Under this proposal, qualified employers would include only non-public-sector organizations--"post-secondary educational institutions," however, would also be considered qualified.
Moreover, the HIRE Act refers to a qualified individual as any individual who has been unemployed at least 60 days prior to being hired by a qualified employer during the period of eligibility. The tax holiday would apply to the employer share of the Social Security OASDI Trust Fund payroll tax-- generally 6.2 percent of total payroll--and the period of eligibility would be from February 3, 2010, to December 31, 2010.
Impact of the Payroll Tax Holiday on Employers
Although the legislation attempts to prevent businesses from out-maneuvering the program, exactly how firms would respond to such a change in the employer share of the payroll tax system is uncertain. The payroll tax holiday would reduce the cost of labor for participating companies. However, such a reduction would be temporary and have little impact. Essentially, a qualified employer hiring a worker earning $10,000 in annual wages would receive a wage subsidy roughly equal to $52 per month; this amount would equal roughly $264 per month for a worker earning $51,000 in annual wages.
As a result of the significant drop in demand for goods and services, firms are not hiring new workers--and in many cases are even laying off current employees. In the absence of real demand for these firms' products, it is reasonable to assume that most employers, given a tax holiday, would likely not suddenly begin acquiring additional labor when they face the possibility of continued depressed demand for their products. It is equally unlikely that an employer operating in an industry or region where the economy is facing the weakest demand would suddenly embark on a permanent hiring splurge. Using the payroll tax holiday of the HIRE Act to stimulate employment growth could actually result in a net decline in employment of 25,000 to 69,000 jobs.
Financing with Transfer from General Revenues
Section 101 of the HIRE Act would be financed with general revenue funds. Specifically, those funds otherwise used from the Treasury--amounting to lost revenue in the federal Social Security OASDI Trust Fund--would be replenished with equal amounts from the federal general revenue account. Using such a transfer of funds as a financing mechanism for this part of the HIRE Act is yet another example of a shift in Social Security from a paid benefit financed from the worker's own contributions (including those of the employer paid in his or her behalf) into a benefit paid for from general revenues.
Adding to Social Security Deficits
The Social Security system is effectively drained of real money and, in 2009, the program ran a deficit of $4.3 billion. These deficits are expected to continue for the next few years before moving back into a small surplus. However, by 2016, these deficits will reappear permanently, and by 2020, Social Security is projected to run $68.5 billion in annual deficits. From then on, deficits will grow into the $300 billion level. Thus, the immediate loss of program revenue will continue to damage the Social Security OASDI Trust Fund both now and in the future.
The immediate loss of $13 billion generated from this legislation, however, is a gross underestimate of the total cost. First, 2010 estimates of net total contributions of payroll tax income are $635.8 billion. This means that suspending the employer share of this figure could reach (at the extreme) a face value loss in revenue of roughly $26 billion in net income per month from the employer share of the OASDI payroll tax.
Second, the total cost of this type of financing plan is more than just the loss in revenue; it also must take into account the lost interest on the immediate revenue loss. The HIRE Act does state that there will be a transfer of money from general revenues to the Social Security OASDI Trust Fund to offset the income loss. However, this only signals yet again that the Social Security trust funds are nothing more than an accounting device--not actual monies that will enable the payment of future benefits. Indeed, the trust funds are nothing more than a call on future tax revenue, and the accounting shenanigans contained in the HIRE Act reinforce the urgent need to fix Social Security once and for all.
Permanently Transforming Social Security
Relying on general revenues as a partial financing mechanism for this program signals a fundamental change to the nature of the Social Security program. This general revenue financing treatment starts the shift of Social Security from a paid benefit financed from the worker's own contributions--including those of the employer paid on his behalf--into a de facto welfare program.
In addition, this move toward a partial general revenue financing arrangement of Social Security opens the way to a backdoor tax increase. After all, shifting Social Security from benefits based on contributions to benefits financed from general revenues will make it far easier to transfer from general revenues to finance Social Security OASDI Trust Fund deficits.
Helping Businesses Grow with Better Solutions
Federal legislators should reconsider passing a "jobs stimulus" plan that will:
- Create a net decline in employment;
- Fail to provide incentives for productive and permanent employment; and
- Contribute significantly to the ongoing deficits in the Social Security system--especially if thefinancing involves deficit spending from general revenues.
The persistent message of potential energy regulation and taxes, employer mandates and taxes relating to health care reform legislation, and the immense uncertainty surrounding the pending expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are stymieing businesses' ability to plan and expand.
Therefore, to help stimulate real growth in the U.S. economy--and to encourage productive and sustainable job creation--federal legislation should:
- Permanently extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts;
- Repeal mandates and regulations that add to the high cost of running a business;
- Reduce crippling taxes--including those taxes imposed on earnings from abroad-- and mandates faced by businesses; and
- Reconsider any federal "stimulus" legislation that will add to ongoing deficits in the Social Security system--especially if the financing involves deficit spending from general revenues.
These steps, rather than payroll tax "holidays," will spark the economic recovery America needs.
John L. Ligon is a Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation in the Center for Data Analysis. The author thanks David C. John, a Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, for his contributions.