August 21, 2000

August 21, 2000 | News Releases on Social Security

New Heritage Web Site Lets Workers Calculate Social Security Nest Eggs

WASHINGTON, August 21, 2000-From actuarial tables to "rates of return," the debate over Social Security's future can be confusing. Most Americans are more interested in one basic question: What am I going to get from the program when I retire?

They can find the answer in less than five minutes by going to the "Social Security Calculator" Web site (www.heritage.org/socialsecurity), The Heritage Foundation announced today. Created by the think tank's Center for Data Analysis (and designed in consultation with the investment firm PricewaterhouseCooper), the calculator uses age, zip code, income and other information supplied by the user to compute both the total amount of Social Security taxes an individual can expect to pay over a lifetime, and how much he or she can expect to collect.

The Heritage calculator also shows how large a retirement nest egg that a worker could have generated by investing those same payroll taxes in an individual retirement account. It then compares the worker's Social Security "rate of return" to the investment return and calculates the difference.

"This is by far the most accurate and most comprehensive Social Security calculator yet developed," said CDA Director William Beach. "It is the first to show workers their total tax burden-what both they and their employers will shell out in payroll taxes. Most calculators ignore the amount of payroll taxes paid into the system altogether. Others include what workers pay, but leave out the matching taxes paid by employers-money that would otherwise go into a worker's paycheck."

This element, combined with the alternative investment feature, often produces surprising results, Beach said. For example, a 33-year-old woman living in Ann Arbor, Mich., earning $44,000 and planning to retire at age 67 can expect to pay $267,599 in Social Security taxes over her working lifetime and receive $369,984 in benefits. Her rate of return on this investment: an anemic 1.12 percent. The same amount, invested 50-50 in blue-chip stocks and U.S. Treasury bonds, would yield $1,458,826-a difference of more than $1 million.

At least the Ann Arbor woman can look forward to getting back more from Social Security than she paid in. A 33-year-old Washington, D.C., man (same income, same retirement age) will pay $295,119 in taxes and receive $163,935 in benefits, a negative 2.85 percent rate of return. Investing those taxes in an identical portfolio of blue-chip stocks and bonds would have earned him $1,449,468, the calculator shows.

The Heritage calculator provides a more reliable estimate in part because it relies so heavily on the Social Security Administration's own data and future income projections. "No other online calculator has as much SSA source data as the Heritage calculator," Beach said. "Combining this information with a worker's gender, age, and location-among other details-gives us a much more accurate snapshot of what a worker can expect to make."

Location is particularly important, Beach said, because it helps predict a worker's life expectancy-and thus provides a better estimate of the total amount he or she is likely to collect. By contrast, the SSA calculator allows an individual to enter his or her occupation, a far less reliable measure of life expectancy, he said.

Another advantage of the Heritage calculator: Workers can "personalize" more data. Besides age, gender and location, they can enter their own exact current and past earnings, as well as their expected retirement age and details from actual investment portfolios. And the calculator gives concise definitions of government terms such as "taxable wages," "retirement, survivors and disability benefits," and "statutory retirement age."

The Heritage calculator is also more useful than SSA's to young workers who haven't spent much time in the workforce, Beach said, because it will compute benefits for anyone who has paid payroll taxes for at least a year. Social Security's calculator can only be used by workers who have been working for at least 10 years.

But it's the "lump sum" benefit feature that puts the Heritage calculator ahead of the competition, Beach said. "Compare that with Social Security's, which gives only an estimated monthly benefit," he said. "The monthly figure tells workers nothing about how good-or how lousy-a return they will get on their tax investment."

The Heritage Foundation, which has long been at the forefront of the Social Security debate, began advocating the use of personal accounts as a way to improve retirement income for U.S. workers as far back as 1982. "The calculator is designed to show Americans, in a very personal way, why serious reform of the system is urgently needed," Beach said.

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