Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are hesitant to put Social Security on the chopping block, but with the U.S. debt growing rapidly, time to reform the 76-year-old program is running out, experts say.
The debate over a program that has become a sacred cow for senior citizens comes at a time when Democrats and Republicans are wrangling about how to fund the government for the rest of the year and beyond.
Democrats charge that the Republicans' continuing resolution would cut essential funds from the Social Security Administration and in turn hurt thousands of retirees who may not get their benefits or be able to enroll on time. The cuts, Republicans say, would amount to $125 million from current levels and $500 million from the reserve fund.
The SSA has warned of possible worker furloughs if the Republicans' plan is approved.
It's "gamesmanship that's being played. The consequences are real," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. "Social Security didn't do one single thing to create this mess."
Republicans say the cuts are needed to balance the budget. They instead blame President Obama for not seizing the opportunity to lead the charge on reforming Social Security, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates will post a deficit of $600 billion over the next ten years.
Social Security comprises 20 percent of the White House's 2012 budget proposal. Even though the report acknowledges that the program faces a "long-term financing shortfall," it doesn't suggest any reforms. Instead, the budget provides an additional $1 billion from 2010 -- for a total of $12.5 million -- to reduce the backlog of disability claims.
More than 54 million Americans -- about one in four U.S. households -- receive benefits each month through Social Security. About 70 percent of those checks, which average $1,076, go to retired workers and their families, and the rest to disabled Americans and recipients' survivors.
The number of enrollees is expected to grow as the baby boomer generation begins retiring, while the pool of workers who contribute to Social Security will grow relatively smaller.
Social Security isn't funded through the federal government. Checks instead are disbursed from a separate trust fund that is replenished by the payroll tax that workers and employers pay. Currently, U.S. workers pay a 6.2 percent payroll tax.
Proponents of the program argue that Social Security does not by itself add to the federal budget deficit, and, in fact, works much like a private entity. But others say the idea that Social Security isn't linked to the deficit is a myth.
This year alone, the program is projected to collect $45 billion less in payroll taxes than it pays out in benefits, according to the CBO. The program posted its first deficit last year for the first time since the 1980s, and that means it will have to borrow money, which would add to the deficit.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Social Security reserve will run out of funds by 2037.
"Ultimately you just need more money coming in or less money going out," said Andrew G. Biggs, former principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration and currently a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.