NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Settling Social Security's Debt

April 18, 2011

Could Social Security's debt be settled at a discount by voluntary transactions with its creditors, namely American citizens?  Alex J. Pollock, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, proposes that it could. 

Large numbers of people, especially young people, do not believe that they will ever fully collect on Social Security's promises, that is, its debt at par.  So Pollock believes significant numbers of people would be interested.  These might well include the 68 percent of respondents aged 19 to 29 who were "not confident at all," or "not so confident," that they would get their full benefits.

  • The present value of all future income of the Social Security trust fund dealing with the pensions program is $34.5 trillion, according to the Social Security Trustees 2010 Report.
  • Against the $34.5 trillion in assets, there are liabilities of $41.4 trillion -- this is the present value of all the future cash outflows promised by Social Security.
  • The liabilities are $6.9 trillion greater than the assets.

Putting these numbers together, the $34.5 trillion in assets of Social Security available to pay promised pensions are only about 83 percent of the promises of $41.4 trillion.  Since the assets are equal to about 83 percent of the liabilities, this gives us a reasonable estimate of the fair way to settle the debt of Social Security to its creditors (namely, us): 83 cents on the dollar.

So would you rather have 83 cents of your own, which you could invest to earn interest you would own, or would you prefer 100 cents of future claims on an admittedly insolvent government pension program?

Source: Alex J. Pollock, "Would You Settle Your Claims on Social Security for 83 Cents on the Dollar? (I Would)," The American, April 7, 2011.

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