With a government shutdown recently narrowly averted, many people wondered what happens to Social Security benefits during a government shutdown. While the Social Security Administration is able to operate on its own during a shutdown, shortcomings in the SSA's funding as well as issues with the federal deficit and debt ceiling may signal trouble for the SSA and people receiving Social Security benefits in the future.
During a government shutdown, only "essential" federal-government employees remain at work and non-essential employees are furloughed. According to ABC News, an employee is designated essential when he or she is "necessary to protect life and property" and necessary to perform an orderly shutdown of emergency operations, such as employees of the Transportation Security Administration or the Coast Guard.
The potential lack of government personnel caused concern that Social Security benefit checks would not be mailed during a shutdown. However, the Social Security Administration can continue to operate during a government shutdown. This is because the SSA does not rely on Congress to authorize funds for it. Rather, Social Security benefits are paid and administered with money from the SSA's trust funds. Therefore, the SSA has the implied legal authority to keep employees who distribute Social Security benefits working during a government shutdown.
Social Security Trust Funds
However, information from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, combined with analysis of the SSA's spending, shows that the agency is operating at a loss. In 2010, its outlays exceeded its income from tax receipts by $76 billion, according to Daily Finance.
From 2009 to 2010, the income of the Old Age and Survivors Trust Fund and the Disability Insurance Trust Fund declined by $66 billion. To bridge the deficit gap, the U.S. Department of the Treasury borrowed money to pay Social Security benefits in 15 of the past 25 months, reported Daily Finance. This places upward pressure on the federal deficit and debt ceiling, which are currently under debate. And with continued low levels of employment, Social Security's tax receipts are unlikely to make up the difference anytime soon.
While a government shutdown was avoided this time, people receiving Social Security benefits are likely to continue receiving them even if a future shutdown occurs. If you have questions about Social Security or how the federal budget affects your benefits, contact a knowledgeable Social Security lawyer in your area.