All Commentary
Tuesday, March 1, 1960

Social Security’s Salvage Value

The 20 per cent jump in Social Security taxes, effective January 1 of this year, brought the total to 6 per cent on the first $4,800 of an employee’s annual earnings. That’s $288 a year. Technically, half is paid by the employee; half by the employer. But actually, the full amount is part of the em­ployer’s cost of hiring help—and the full amount is missing from the employee’s take-home pay. In other words, it’s $288 a year, all paid in effect by the employee. In­cidentally, he’s liable for the regu­lar income tax on his half of that $288—at not over 20 per cent ($28.80) if he’s lucky. However, that’s double taxation, which is an­other story.

The next point of the present story is that the current Social Security tax of 6 per cent, or $288, is scheduled for three more jumps between now and 1969, when it will be 9 per cent on the first $4,800, or $432 per employee. Any reliable insurance agent can tell you that would buy a sizable chunk of old-age insurance from his com­pany—particularly if you happen to be a young person.’

But that’s the third point of the story. If you’re buying Social Security, it’s not a good deal to be a young person. In fact, it’s an exceedingly raw deal, as indicated in Actuarial Study No. 48 of the Social Security Administration:

The sum of the present value of the contributions to be paid under the present schedule [1956] by pres­ent members and the existing fund is $269 billion less than the present value of the benefits to be paid to them and their dependents and sur­vivors…. On the other hand, there is a “surplus” of $228 billion for new entrants.

In layman’s language, what that says is that the good old days of something-for-nothing from Social Security are drawing to a close, and that a “new entrant” (a young fellow at his first “covered” job) is going to help pay at least $228 billion more than he can ever expect to get back from his Social Security taxes. In other words, under the 1956 amendments (aggravated in 1958, and likely to get worse with each subsequent amendment), the new entrant can expect to pay a tax averaging about 8.3 per cent of payroll until he retires, as against benefits valued at 4.93 per cent of that same payroll. That is, the new en­trant is scheduled to pay $1.69 for every $1.00 promised in benefits. At least, that’s how the actuaries of the Social Security Administra­tion figure it—and it’s not their business to paint the picture any worse than it is.

The Record Shows

The lead editorial in Barron’s of January 4, 1960 carried this brief review of the program:

“Since Social Security was launched in 1935, benefit payments have increased sharply. Group after group has been added to the rolls, age limits have been lowered, and eligibility broadened. In 1956, Congress extended coverage to a whole new class of recipients, the disabled. Today, 13.4 million Americans are receiving monthly checks, which for the year just ended, totaled $10 billion. Nor will the process stop here, since the number of beneficiaries is mount­ing steadily. What’s more, Con­gress is toying with dozens of ways to broaden the program. Some legislators would reduce the age of eligibility from 65 for men and 62 for women to 60 (or less) for everyone. Others would lower or eliminate the minimum age of 50 for payments for disability. Still others would boost all benefits by 10 per cent. Finally, Rep. Aime Forand (D., R.I.) proposes to add `free’ medical, hospital, and nurs­ing-home care. This modest pro­posal, by government estimate, would cost over a billion dollars in the first year, and far more there­after.”

The bitter truth, which any con­scientious parent should want his children—as well as his congress­man—to understand here and now, is that Social Security has been tried and found wanting. The facts developed in these first 25 years under the program make abundantly clear what could have been known from the beginning: the only way the government can provide a windfall for the oldsters is to fleece the youngsters. With perhaps a few rare exceptions, the point already has been passed for entering the program with the chance of getting back as much as one puts into it. Nor is there the slightest political possibility of a soundly funded government insurance program that could give any other result.

As long as it afforded a chance of something-for-nothing, Social Security had its inducements for “practical” persons with no guide other than that of crass material­ism. But, with that powerful in­ducement now wiped out by the soaring schedule of taxes, it should be easier for everyone to understand why the program was doomed from the beginning by its compulsory and immoral features.

The immorality arises, not in freely giving of one’s own to assist the needy or the aged, but in the coercion employed to make others contribute.

The lesson Social Security offers is that a morally defective proce­dure eventually must prove to be both economically and politically unsound. If the youth of America will learn that lesson, it could be a vital salvage—their most im­portant benefit—from the Social Security burden thrust upon them.


‘For a premium of $432 a year from age 20, a man can secure from private companies a life annuity averaging about $216 a month after he reaches 65. This is in contrast to the monthly benefit of $127 promised through Social Security.


  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.