5 Likely Changes to Social Security Over the Next 10 Years

Sam Cook wasn't referring to Social Security in his classic song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” However, the sentiment definitely seems applicable to the federal program.

The reality is that Social Security can't stay the same without steep benefit cuts. But it's unlikely that the U.S. Congress will want to face the wrath of seniors if they let that scenario happen.

What specific modifications to Social Security might be made? The smart money would be on the ideas that have the most support among both Democrats and Republicans.

In June, the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation published results from a survey that identified the most popular steps to prevent Social Security from having a shortfall. Here are five likely changes to the program over the next 10 years based on the survey's findings.

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1. Increase the salary cap for the payroll tax

Both Democrats and Republicans in the University of Maryland survey especially liked one idea to help fix Social Security. An overwhelming majority — 81% — of survey respondents supported an increase in the salary cap for the payroll tax that funds Social Security. The proposed change was viewed favorably by 88% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans.

Currently, only wages up to $147,000 per year are subject to the payroll tax. The proposal included on the survey is to also make all wages of more than $400,000 per year subject to the tax. Doing so would eliminate roughly 61% of the projected Social Security shortfall.

Whether or not legislators ultimately go with the $400,000 threshold remains to be seen. However, with this idea garnering significant bipartisan support among the American public and its making a big difference in bolstering Social Security, it seems to be close to a slam-dunk change at some point in the not too distant future.

2. Reduce benefits for high earners

Wealthier Americans could be in store for another hit. Eighty-one percent of survey respondents liked the idea of reducing benefits for high earners. Democrats were more supportive of the alternative, with 86% support, compared with 78% of Republicans.

Who would be considered a high earner under this plan? The survey's question's wording asked about reducing benefits for the top 20% of earners. If this plan were implemented, it would eliminate close to 11% of the projected Social Security shortfall.

3. Raise the retirement age

Democrats and Republicans give nearly equal support to raising the retirement age. Seventy-six percent of Republicans favor the plan, while 76% of Democrats like it.

This isn't a new idea, of course. In 1983, the full retirement age was raised from 65 to 67. The change was phased in, with a higher age applying to anyone born in 1960 and later.

The University of Maryland survey proposed raising the retirement age by one year to 68. This change would wipe out 14% of the projected Social Security shortfall.

4. Increase the payroll tax

Seventy-three percent of survey respondents favored increasing the payroll tax. Democrats liked the idea a little more than Republicans did, with 78% and 70% support, respectively, among the two groups.

We're not talking about a huge increase, though. The proposal presented in the survey was to bump up the payroll tax from 6.2% to 6.5%. That relatively modest change would have a sizable impact, however. It would eliminate around 16% of the projected Social Security shortfall.

5. Raise the minimum benefit

Not all of the most popular Social Security changes will help bolster Social Security. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents supported raising the minimum benefit. Democrats were more favorably disposed toward the idea, with 71% supporting it, versus only 59% of Republicans.

The University of Maryland survey proposed increasing the minimum monthly Social Security benefit from $951 to $1,341 for anyone who has worked 30 years. While this change received broad support, it would increase the projected Social Security shortfall by 7%.

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