Executive Summary: How Today's Social Security Works

Report Social Security

Executive Summary: How Today's Social Security Works

March 2, 2005 2 min read Download Report
David John
Former Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions
David is a former Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions.

What Is Social Security?

Social Security is probably the most popular federal program, yet most people know almost nothing about it. In practice, Social Security's com­plex benefit formulas and rules make it difficult for people to understand how their retirement bene­fits will work.

This paper explains what Social Security is and how it works. The first section explains what Social Security is and which programs are and are not part of Social Security. This includes a discus­sion about Social Security's retirement, survivors, and disability programs. It also explains why Sup­plemental Security Income is not part of Social Security, even though it is administered by the Social Security Administration.

How Social Security Is Financed

The second section explains the payroll taxes that mainly finance Social Security and how they are paid. It explores the level of payroll taxes used to finance the system, how those taxes are col­lected, and what programs they fund. One fact that is often overlooked is that a worker's paycheck normally shows only half of the Social Security payroll taxes that are paid on his or her behalf.

The Trust Funds

The third section explains what Social Security's trust funds are and are not. It examines how much goes into the trust funds, the sources of this money, and how the money is spent. It also dis­cusses the annual trustees report.

As this section explains, there is no pool of actual assets that is being reserved to pay the bene­fits of future retirees. The Social Security trust fund contains nothing more than IOUs in the form of special-issue U.S. Treasury bonds, which the federal government can repay only though higher taxes, massive borrowing, or massive cuts in other federal programs. While many workers thought that the system's annual surpluses were being used to build a reserve for future retirees, the federal government has been spending this money to fund other government programs and to reduce the government debt.

How Benefits Are Calculated

The fourth and longest section discusses how Social Security benefits are calculated and who is eligible to receive them. Social Security benefits are determined by a complex formula that is based on past earnings. How those past earnings are indexed so that money earned long ago has the same purchasing power as salaries earned more recently is key to understanding efforts to fix the system. This section explains indexing and how different methods could result in different results.

In addition, this section explains such complex topics as the Government Pension Offset, which affects workers who have worked in government jobs that are not part of Social Security; the Wind­fall Elimination Provision, which affects every worker who has worked both in a job that is cov­ered by Social Security and in one that is not; and the question of "notch babies."

A companion paper will discuss the fiscal prob­lems facing the current system and why changes are necessary. All of the information contained in this paper comes from Social Security Administra­tion sources.


Social Security is a remarkably complex pro­gram, and few people actually understand how it operates. However, if the current program's impending financial problems are to be avoided, it becomes increasingly important for informed citi­zens to measure different reform options against the existing program's actual operating structure and practices.

David C. John is Research Fellow in Social Secu­rity and Financial Institutions in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


David John

Former Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions