Anyone on track to make a million dollars got a lot more than chocolates and roses for Valentine’s Day this year. On February 14th - less than a month and a half into the year - they paid their last dime of Social Security taxes for 2016.
That’s the conclusion of a tool created by Kevin Cashman at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). It’s based on the little known fact that Americans only pay Social Security taxes on their first $118,500 of income. For most of us, this doesn’t make much difference. But for the 6% of wage earners who earn above the cap, it can be huge. For the solvency of Social Security, it’s more important than ever.
I’ve written about this before. As Cashman’s calculator shows, those who make slightly above the cap don’t benefit much from it. But the nature of inequality in America today means that a lot of people make a lot more, and for them the savings add up quick.
Take, for instance, the top 565 wage earners, who make an average of $28 million per year. They finished paying into Social Security by the end of their first day at work. The top 110 wage earners were done within their first two hours.
As Cashman’s calculator makes clear, someone who earns $50 million per year pays a little more than twice what someone earning the median household income of $50,000 pays, despite having an income 100,000% greater. This has implications for the system’s solvency. If the cap on Social Security taxes adjusted to the reality of income inequality, the richest Americans wouldn’t notice the difference. But for the millions of Americans who rely on it, Social Security will be fully funded for generations to come.
Lifting the cap isn’t completely outside the realm of political possibility. The medicare tax had an income cap until 1994, when a bipartisan group of lawmakers came together to guarantee its solvency with a tax of 2.45% on every dollar earned. This might seem unlikely in our era of political paralysis, but large majorities of all age groups consistently oppose cutting Social Security. I’m optimistic that such a compromise can happen again.