Are Social Security Benefits a Form of Socialism?

Contributions to Social Security Trust Fund (2022)
Source  Amount 
Payroll Tax Contributions  $945.9 billion 
OASDI Benefit Taxes  $47.1 billion 
Interest Earnings $63.5 billion
General Fund of the Treasury Reimbursements $0.2 billion
TOTAL $1,056.7 billion

Social Security vs. Private Retirement Accounts

Individuals with private retirement savings accounts have more control over how much and when to contribute than they do with paying Social Security taxes. For example, if you work for a company that offers a 401(k) plan, you can decide what percentage of each paycheck (if any) to redirect to that account—although government regulations place restrictions on how much you can contribute.

The annual limit on 401(k) contributions is $22,500 in 2023. This amount increases to $30,000 if you are 50 or older, thanks to the $7,500 catch-up contribution allowed by the government. You cannot contribute to a Roth IRA if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $153,000 or higher for singles and $228,000 or higher for married couples filing jointly.

Who Decides What to Pay Out and When?

With a private retirement account, such as a 401(k) or Roth IRA, you decide when to withdraw money from your account, and how much to take out. With some retirement accounts, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will make you pay penalties if you take out money before you reach a certain age or don’t withdraw enough money each year after reaching a certain age. Still, there’s much more flexibility here than with Social Security retirement benefits.

With Social Security, the government decides how much to give you and when. You can decide when to start receiving benefits, but it can’t be until age 62 (where you collect the lowest benefit) and age 70 (where you collect the highest benefit).

While you can’t change the size of your Social Security check, you are eligible for annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) that the Social Security Administration gives beneficiaries each year to maintain their buying power. For 2023, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits increased by 8.7%. For 2024, the increase is 3.2%.

Once you start claiming benefits, you’ll get a check for the same amount every month, based on your lifetime earnings and your age when you started claiming benefits. You can’t decide to withdraw more money in months when you have higher expenses and less money in months when you have lower expenses, as you could with an IRA or 401(k).

If you find yourself terminally ill at 40, you can’t claim retirement benefits early based on what you contributed over the years. Keep in mind that you may qualify for Social Security disability insurance.

But you can cash out your private retirement accounts at any time without getting anyone’s approval, albeit with a penalty in some cases. Brokerage firms won’t make you prove that you can’t work if you want to take an early withdrawal from your traditional IRA (though the IRS might if you want to avoid penalties by claiming a withdrawal for a medically-related hardship).

Can You Opt-Out of Social Security?

Few taxpayers can opt-out of paying into the Social Security system. The Amish, Mennonites, and other religious groups that conscientiously object can sometimes claim a religious exemption from paying into the system as long as they also don’t receive or even qualify to receive any benefits. If you received any benefits, you may still qualify for a religious exemption if you repay them.

People who renounce their U.S. citizenship may be able to opt-out, depending on their circumstances. Some nonresident aliens don’t have to pay into the system, depending on which type of visa they have. Foreign government employees based in the United States and college students who are employed by their university are also exempt.

What about opting in? Under a public retirement system or a Section 218 agreement, some state and local government employees are covered while not paying into Social Security. These employees aren’t allowed to opt into the program.

With private retirement savings accounts, it’s totally up to you whether to contribute. Even if your employer automatically enrolls you in its 401(k) plan in an attempt to nudge you into contributing, you can opt-out if you wish.

How Are Social Security Funds Managed?

The Social Security system is set up as an intergenerational wealth transfer. This means that all contributions go into one collective pot, so the funds aren’t held in our individual names. The Social Security taxes the government collects from current workers pay for the benefits of current retirees.

Depending on when you retire, how much you earned, and your marital status, you may see a better or worse return in terms of getting back more or less than you contributed.

The Threat of Depletion

Because different generations are different in size, this structure leads to what could be described as timing problems with paying out benefits. Taxes from the immense baby boomer generation comfortably supported the retirement of the relatively small Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1945, many of those years scarred by the Great Depression and war) and the greatest generation (whose members fought in World War II).

With more and more boomers reaching retirement—and the fact that Generation X, the next generation, is smaller—it is estimated that Social Security’s reserves, also called the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund, could be depleted by 2033.

According to the 2023 annual report from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees, the estimated depletion date is 2033. The report also cited that the taxes being paid into Social Security beyond that year will only cover 77% of the scheduled benefits.

Millennials make up an even larger generation than the boomers, but it’s not clear how well their financial contributions will serve to support boomers and Generation X, and how large future generations will be.

Is a Social Security Check Socialism?

A Social Security check is not completely a socialist program. If it were a pure socialist program, the amount that every individual contributed to it would be the same and the amount of the benefits received (paid out) by each individual would be the same. This is not the case.

What Are the Weaknesses of Socialism?

Socialism’s weaknesses include slow economic growth, inefficient allocation of resources, low competition, lack of innovation due to low competition, few opportunities for entrepreneurship, and a lack of motivation amongst employees.

What Programs in the U.S. Are Socialist?

Socialist programs and social programs have fine distinctions. Though some of the government programs in the U.S. can be seen as socialist, they are not truly socialist. There are, however, social programs in the U.S., such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The Bottom Line

The U.S. got the idea for a social security system from 19th-century Germany. That very capitalist monarchy launched an old-age social insurance program in 1889 at the behest of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, partly to stave off radical socialist ideas being floated at the time. The original social security was actually an anti-socialist maneuver by a conservative government.

Nevertheless, because the American government plays such a dominant role in the U.S. Social Security system—deciding how much and when employees and employers pay into the system, how much individuals receive in benefits when they get them, and preventing almost everyone from opting out—it only seems fair to say that Social Security is, in effect, a form of democratic socialism; however, it may also be considered a form of social insurance or a social safety net.

The program requires workers and their employers, along with self-employed individuals, to pay into the system throughout their working years. The government controls the money they contribute and decides when and how much they get back after—and if—they reach retirement age. Having such a successful and beloved socialist-like program at the heart of such a committed capitalistic society is perhaps the ultimate paradox. Or maybe it’s just good common sense.

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